There’s an old saying that all of our problems come down to education. Ultimately, education is what frees us as people. From it, we learn that some foods are better to eat for our overall health than others. We learn how money can improve our daily life. We learn how to better raise our children. We learn how to use math to create predictions that may prevent hardships.

We learn all of this and more through acquiring an education. But, the issue is that not everyone has access to quality education. In the United States, we understand how essential education is to promote positive outcomes. This is especially the case as it relates to criminal justice reform — to the point where one can legitimately argue that educational reform is itself criminal justice reform. In order to fix the problems we face within the criminal justice system today, we must address educational reform. Just like repairing a roof with duct tape will do nothing to help save the house from the next storm, repairing our criminal justice system without reforming our educational system will do little to help us reduce recidivism.

If we are to improve our nation’s lot as having one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet, we’re going to need to simultaneously fix our compulsory education system.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Our compulsory education system is based on concepts from the industrial revolution. Schools that developed after this time were geared toward producing efficient factory workers in batches throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Schools operate on strict timelines, 50 minutes for math, 50 minutes for reading, and so on — regardless of whether or not the material takes a student 50 minutes to learn.

Children are educated in batches by birth date, regardless of interest, intellectual prowess, aptitude, and ability. This methodology has created a system in which we paint with a broad brush. It might have served us well a century ago, but it no longer is an acceptable approach. The problems we face today cannot be solved with the processes of yesteryear. Although many people will debate the role of education in our society, few will disagree that its fundamental purpose is to adequately prepare youth for the challenges they will face in the world.

One of the biggest challenges they will ever face is paying for life’s needs, whether it’s an individual, a family, coming from a privileged background, or not. Education has been deemed so important in the United States that it is required by federal law. Children must attend school. Therefore, so long as they’re required to go, we should make sure that it is an effective engine for society, and not a mere relic of the past.

What Educational Reform Means For Recidivism

In terms of recidivism, when we talk about making fundamental shifts to the compulsory system, we need to talk about the system that exists for those who stand the highest probability of ending up in the criminal justice system – the impoverished. Poverty is the closest correlating factor with a life of crime.

Education gives a focal point for communities to drive attention. Schools have always been meeting places for communities, churches, and groups of all types. They are some of the first civic structures to be built, as it is understood that they exist for the purpose of making better all of the community as a whole.

Unfortunately, schools in impoverished areas are the entry-point to the school to prison pipeline. Instead of being a place to learn and grow out of poverty, they begin the cycle which traps millions of people every year. In order to really destroy recidivism, we have to ensure that we increase the graduation rate, and not simply treat schools as holding cells for children.

For this reason, schools are the perfect place to start. The types of educational reform needed are less on the specifics of what is learned in math or social studies class, and far more so on the hard skills that they need in order to be successful in providing for their basic needs post-graduation.

This means that education administrators must carve out space in the curriculums implemented to make room for instructions on household finances, applying for jobs, acing interviews, and having the basic skills necessary to succeed in life as a whole. While this may appear to be a herculean challenge, continuing down the current path will present far greater consequences to future generations.

What’s the Trouble?

The biggest barrier is our federal curriculum. The basic subject matters — math, science, and English — aren’t the issue. The problem is the lack of practical electives to ensure personal growth and long-term self-sustainability. Schools must include subject matters covering emotional intelligence and stress management, proper nutrition and physical education, budgeting and credit management, social etiquette and social media safety, civic education, and vocational training for students with trade-centered aspirations.

Some after school programs have been developed for the purpose of teaching these types of subject matters. Research shows that the kids who regularly attend after school programs are less likely to get involved in criminal activity. So what about the kids who won’t attend or whose parents can’t attend afford to pay for these opportunities? The answer can be simple. If research tells us that the kids attending these types of after school programs are less likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system, then the proof is in the pudding. Make these types of programs part of our school’s basic daily curriculum.

In order to make a difference in the compulsory K-12 education system, it’s essential to modify our school’s curriculum format to include practical subject matter electives.

More Than Just Fighting Recidivism

People who receive better education — both in terms of academic excellence as well as learning better skills for getting jobs and managing finances — have better outcomes in other areas of their lives as well. When someone has a good job, that often comes with health insurance. Better health insurance means that they have a better quality of life, can have illnesses treated, etc.

Better job opportunities also tend to mean better living conditions, better food, more leisure time to recuperate from difficult circumstances, stronger support networks, and a whole host of other benefits. Educational reform is a requisite of meaningful criminal justice reform and the key to reducing recidivism. Educational reform will effectively stop the school to prison pipeline because it will reduce the number of people who break the law to begin with.

It’s all a cycle, and we’ve been doing everything we can to stop the bleeding, but we now need to make sure we develop a process where the injury can be prevented in the first place. This is the way we will achieve long term sustainable reform and put an end to recidivism for good.

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