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Harvard Researchers Say Jail Educational Programs Reduce Recidivism, Violence

Harvard Law School is located at 1585 Massachusetts Ave. A study by Harvard professors found an educational program at a county jail reduced misconduct and harms of incarceration.
Harvard Law School is located at 1585 Massachusetts Ave. A study by Harvard professors found an educational program at a county jail reduced misconduct and harms of incarceration. By Julian J. Giordano

An education program at a county jail in Flint, Michigan significantly reduced recidivism, misconduct, and the harms of incarceration, according to a new study co-authored by Harvard Law School professor Crystal S. Yang ’08 and Harvard Kennedy School professor Marcella Alsan ’99.

The Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education program, started by Genesee County Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson in 2020, has correctional officers provide daily, personal education to incarcerated people in Genesee County Jail in Flint.

The study found that one month of program participation decreased recidivism after release by 18 percent over three months and 23 percent over a year, and that participants’ reading and math scores improved a full grade level. The program also decreased violence and improved perceptions of law enforcement officers, even while the participants remained incarcerated.

“The results are really striking,” said Brown University economics professor Peter Hull, one of the study’s co-authors.

Alsan first learned about the program when she met Meghan Beal, the project manager at the National Sheriffs Association, according to an emailed statement by the study’s co-authors. Beal, who is working to scale IGNITE to jails across the country, agreed to let Alsan and the other researchers examine the program in Flint.

“This was an opportunity for academics to take our cues from people on the ground doing the work and asking for our help in evaluation,” the authors wrote. “As social scientists, our ‘constituents’ include people like Sheriffs and incarcerated individuals.”

The study had a “dream team of academics” to evaluate the IGNITE program, according to the statement, including Arkey Barnett — an economics Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan who has relatives experiencing incarceration and systemic discrimination.

In an interview, Hull said that the United States’ approach to incarceration is focused on punitive efforts, rather than the rehabilitative model favored by countries like Norway. He said the study’s findings reinforce the idea that a rehabilitative approach should be brought to the American criminal justice system.

“I’ve been very heartened by the work in Flint,” Hull said.

All in all, the researchers said IGNITE spells improvements for society, reducing the “social cost” of crime post-release by $5,600 per year per person through just one additional month of participation in the program.

Hull said the study suggested that IGNITE could be effective for individuals of different educational backgrounds.

“A surprising finding to come out of our evaluation of IGNITE was how it seemed to work broadly among many different populations,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers said the study found promise in leveraging education to implement rehabilitative practices in the carceral system.

“Education is used as a vehicle to change the job description of custody staff and to provide hope and dignity to those who are incarcerated,” the researchers wrote.

“Our first study was a proof of concept and we are looking forward to hopefully digging in deeper very soon,” they added.

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