More Post-Secondary Education for Inmates Would ‘Cut Recidivism, Reduce Poverty’

Restoring access to Pell Grants for post-secondary education in prison would also increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated people across the United States by nearly 10 percent, says a new study.

Restoring access to Pell Grants for post-secondary education in prison would also increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated people across the United States by nearly 10 percent, says a new study.

Providing opportunities for post-secondary education for prisoners is also likely to reduce recidivism rates and save an estimated $365.5 million a year in incarceration costs for states, concluded a study released jointly Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The so-called Pell grants to post-secondary education programs in prison were sharply scaled back by Congress in 1994 in a reflection of  “tough-on-crime” attitudes that perceived such grants as coddling of criminals.

But the study says that research shows that giving inmates access to post-secondary education is critical to reducing mass incarceration, lowering recidivism rates and ensuring public safety.

“This relic of the ‘tough-on-crime’ era has resulted in long-term negative consequences for all of us…as well as lost economic potential for individuals, families, and communities,” said Vera Institute president Nick Turner,, and Georgetown Center director Peter Edelman in their introduction to the study.

“It’s time we repeal the ban and create a more restorative justice system that increases safety and produces better and more cost-effective outcomes for everyone d break the cycle of poverty that comes with it. “

The study found that 64 percent of incarcerees in federal and state prisons had achieved a GED or high school diploma, making them academically eligible to enroll in a postsecondary education program.

Some limited post-secondary education is available through the the federal Second Chance Pell program, but  only 9 percent of incarcerated people completed a postsecondary program while beind bars in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.

The study estimated that if the congressional ban were lifted, about 463,000 incarcerated people would be eligible for Pell Grants.

The study was prepared by Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield, Casey Goldvale, and Laura Tatum of the  Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; and Margaret diZerega and Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute of Justice.

The full study is available here.


Ban the Box for Colleges, Too

Finding a job — especially one that pays well —is key to keeping those with a criminal history from being rearrested. Removing criminal history questions on college applications will lead to better outcomes not only for people with records, but for society as a whole, argues an R Street researcher.

A growing number of Americans are required to physically check a box on all sorts of applications — including those for education, jobs and even housing — if they have a criminal history.

Sadly, this means that even a single lapse in judgment can become a major obstacle for individuals, even after they have paid their debt to society.

Michigan recently took a step toward “banning the box” for career-related applications, meaning people seeking jobs and certain occupational licenses will no longer be required to check a box indicating that they have been convicted of a felony.

The state also happens to be a leader in correctional education practices, partnering with Jackson College to provide college courses in prisons and working to support those incarcerated with Vocational Village programs.

Given this positive momentum, it makes sense for the Wolverine State (and other states as well) to move “beyond the box” in the educational context by removing the felony check-boxes on college applications.

Colleges and universities are in a unique position to help remove barriers that prevent the estimated 70 million American citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education — specifically early in the application process when prospective students are asked about an arrest record.

At the federal level, Sen. Brian Schatz( D-HI), has introduced legislation to provide resources for colleges that are considering how to end the criminal history reporting requirement. Senate Bill 3435, the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act of 2018, would direct the secretary of education to issue guidance and recommendations for institutions of higher education on removing criminal and juvenile record questions from their admissions applications.

A recent survey of post-secondary institutions found that about two-thirds collect criminal history information from all applicants. Even more troubling, a Center for Community Alternatives study found that 25 percent of the schools that ask for criminal histories have some criminal history-related automatic bar to admission.

For individuals with felony records — and particularly for those who would be re-entering society after a prison sentence — education can be the key to finding successful employment.

In fact, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that by 2020, “employers will seek cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.”

For those seeking employment, this means that the likelihood of attaining work will increase with greater access to higher education.

By removing criminal history questions from applications, colleges and universities can contribute to long-term, positive economic returns for these individuals — and help keep them from returning to prison.

Studies have shown that workers with post-secondary education earn 74 percent more than workers with a high school diploma or less.

Similarly, research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that wages tripled for people who have earned doctoral and professional degree compared to those individuals with less than a high school diploma.

Given that finding a job — especially one that pays well — is key to keeping those with a criminal history from being rearrested, removing criminal history questions on college applications will likely lead to better outcomes not only for people with records, but for society as a whole.

Benefits for Children

Furthermore, when a parent has a post-secondary education, his or her child is more likely to attend college as well, thereby passing additional, positive educational impacts on to the next generation. Theoretically, then, if we help ensure more parents have access to higher education, this can create a community with less unemployment and more stability for generations.

Opponents of eliminating criminal history-reporting on college applications point to the potential for increased crime on campus. Yet research has found no substantial evidence that screening applicants for prior convictions improves safety on campus.

Furthermore, some of the most serious crimes committed on campus have been committed by people with no criminal record.

Education is critical to ensuring lifelong success, and for those re-entering society, access to education can provide long-term, positive outcomes.

Jesse Kelley

Jesse Kelley

States like Michigan, which have already taken steps to ban the box and implement correctional education programs, have a unique opportunity to be on the precipice of moving beyond the box to ensure that the lasting benefits higher education are accessible to all.

Jesse Kelley (@JessDKelley) is a policy analyst and government affairs specialist for criminal justice with the R Street Institute.


Did Illinois Officials Muzzle a Prisoners’ Debate over Parole Reform?

A lawsuit filed last month claims inmates who started a debating team at the Stateville Il., Correctional Center were disciplined for political activism. Authorities say the program was cancelled for “security reasons.” The team’s coach gives her side of the story here.

Thirteen prisoners were sitting in a stuffy classroom at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center one morning last April when a group of prison administrators invited themselves in─and closed the doors behind them.


Members of the Stateville Correctional Center debate team. (L-R) Carnell Fitzpatrick, Luigi Adamo, Alfred Moore-Bey, Benard McKinley. Photo courtesy WGN-TV Chicago.

That was the first sign of trouble. It was against prison rules to close classroom doors─officers needed to see inside─so the prisoners, all participants in a debate team I began coaching at the facility six months earlier, were as baffled as I was.

But in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Since the previous fall, our debate team, part of a nonprofit program called the Justice Debate League (JDL), had operated with little fanfare or attention from prison authorities. JDL was established to offer juvenile and adult prisoners in the state an opportunity to learn and practice the principles of debating.

As our website explains, we believe that “bringing debate behind bars is a powerful move toward justice and equality.”

One of our main goals for getting these teams up and running was also to use debate as a tool to connect prisoners to the broader debate community. So when a prison chaplain at Stateville suggested that we invite the world in to see how incredibly astute and well-informed the gentlemen I was working with were, we jumped at the chance.

On March 21, we hosted a public debate on the topic of reforming the parole system in Illinois before an audience of about 75 people─including state government and department officials, state legislators, university professors, and activists.

Everyone who attended was blown away by the team’s performance, and rightly so.

We had prepared well. Our class had done six months of in-depth research on different parole systems in use around the U.S. We had studied the history of Illinois’ parole systems at length and had come up with a model of what we believed to be the best possible parole system for Illinois.

The response to the event was phenomenal. Legislators started seriously working on parole legislation. Many of them wanted to return to learn more from the debate team members. Activists had a fire lit under them.


Katrina Burlet, coach, led the weekly three-hour sessions of the debate team until the program was cancelled in April. Photo courtesy WGN-TV Chicago..

During that April visit to our weekly class, the prison officials made clear that they did not want the message of the debaters to be heard by any other members of the Illinois General Assembly. Although they did not say outright they feared the obvious capacity for influence from this group of men, their actions since couldn’t have made it more explicit.

Our debate program was cancelled. Plans to videotape our class debating the issue of parole in Illinois were also cancelled. Our scheduled debate against Wiley College, an historically black university in Marshall, Tx., (to be held at the Stateville facility) about voting rights for incarcerated people was cancelled.

And I have not been allowed since then into any facilities operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

These events should be troubling to anyone committed to the idea of giving prisoners the skills to use their voices as an instrument for change. We believe that our debate program is a model for similar programs for incarcerated individuals elsewhere in the country─but what happened to us shows how much more needs to be done.

When oppressed people are suddenly given a platform in the public square, historically the oppressor works to revoke that opportunity. The Illinois prison officials stood on the shoulders of many tragically misguided authorities before them. Like their predecessors, they peeled the oppressed out of the public eye, and worked to put the prisoners back in their place.

Prison discipline was used to break spirits so that the men of the debate team would never try something like that again. In this instance, the most outspoken team members were thrown into segregation, threatened with transfer to other facilities, personal mail was delayed or destroyed, and team members were given bogus tickets. For people serving life sentences, this really is the full extent of punishment available.

I am not alone in being completely baffled by the lack of accountability applied to the prison officials for these actions, and in recognizing that their actions constitute such a blatant violation of First Amendment rights that taking the Department of Corrections to court over this is the next logical step.

On Aug. 28, the Uptown People’s Law Center of Chicago filed a lawsuit on my behalf over the retaliatory actions they have taken against myself and my former students.

Katrina Burlet

Katrina Burlet speaks to the media. Courtesy WGN-TV Chicago.

Since then, I have been encouraged by the amount of support we have received.

Supporters include formerly incarcerated individuals, family members of incarcerated people, friends, advocacy organizations, and many more. But the real power behind this push for justice comes from Stateville’s Debate Team.

The men on this team are the fuel for this fire. If there was ever a group of people courageous enough to take on this fight despite the compounding disadvantages of their state of oppression and obscurity, this is it.

The prisoners who comprise Stateville’s Debate Team are easily the most remarkable group of gentlemen with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working.

In an open letter that the group penned to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner after I had been banned, the team called for reinstatement of my volunteer status, saying that participation on the debate team gave them a “modicum of hope,” and that, “in prison, hope is priceless. It can literally mean the difference between striving for a better future or suicide.”

When a man who is wrongly incarcerated for life and who has exhausted all of his legal remedies tells you that he still believes there is a way he may be set free, that hope shines brighter than all the darkness the prison can muster.

Reason, justice, and the U.S. Constitution are on the side of the Stateville Debate Team.

I believe that sometimes the oppressed do receive justice, and that if we all hope hard enough, it just might happen for us.

Hope really is a powerful weapon, and I eagerly cling to it along with the debate team members on the inside, as I pray that I’ll be allowed to debate with them again.

Editors’ Note: In response to the inmates’ claims, Illinois prison authorities have said the debate team was cancelled because of concerns about “security” at the prison. Speaking on National Public Radio in June, state Department of Corrections head John Baldwin acknowledged the debate program “was really well-received, but this was about somebody who chose not to follow basic corrections safety and security practices.” He didn’t elaborate, but the Aug. 28 complaint filed by the Uptown People’s Law Center counters that the program organizers “followed all the rules.”

Katrina Burlet is director and founder of the Justice Debate League. She also coaches the debate team at her alma mater, Hinsdale (IL) Central High School. She welcomes comments from readers. Follow her at @Justice_Debate. #LetStatevilleDebate.


Low Unemployment Rates Encourage Prisoner Training

The U.S. economy has been in a sustained period of low unemployment with many states across the Midwest and Northeast, in particular, experiencing labor shortages and employers who need to reach further for workers looking at prisons. Officials in Maine, which had a 3 percent unemployment rate in July, are inviting employers to the state prison in Warren for a seminar on hiring prisoners in September.

“Technology is definitely going to be a steppingstone in keeping myself stable,” says Jennifer Fleming, one of eight women in a pilot program at the Indiana Women’s Prison that officials plan to roll out to other prisons in the state, the Wall Street Journal reports. Fleming, 40, passed a test and two rounds of interviews to be accepted. The program called The Last Mile aims to help inmates find work and stay out of prison once they are released. Researchers at Rand Corp. have found that inmates who participate in educational programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison. Ex-inmates are typically among the last groups on the sidelines of the jobs market. The U.S. economy has been in a sustained period of low unemployment with many states across the Midwest and Northeast, in particular, experiencing labor shortages and employers needing to reach further for workers.

Officials in Maine, which had a 3 percent unemployment rate in July, are inviting employers to the state prison in Warren for a seminar on hiring prisoners in September. Organizers expected between 25 and 50 employers. So far, 114 have signed up, from retailers to construction companies. The state is proposing that employers send their own managers into prisons to train inmates.  “Everywhere you go up here, there are help wanted signs,” said Ed Upham, director of the state’s Bureau of Employment Services. “This is an overlooked population whose time has come.” In Wisconsin, where the unemployment rate was 2.9 percent in July, about 20 inmates build semitrailers for Stoughton Trailers LLC through a state work-release program to hire prisoners. They work as entry-level assemblers up to advanced welders earning as much as $20 an hour. Initially, the program was a tough sell for managers, but today the inmates who arrive every day provide a buffer against absenteeism, said Stoughton’s Meghen Yeadon.


Why Aren’t We Spending More on Prisoner Education?

Every dollar invested in correctional education reduces future criminal justice costs by five dollars. But despite studies bearing this out, policymakers hesitate even to revive programs that were scrapped in the tough-on-crime era, says a leading prison reformer. 

Education reduces crime, plain and simple.

The RAND Corporation underscored the positive impact of education in its 2013 review of the research reports on correctional education over the last couple of decades. Bottom line from their reports: providing education programs for incarcerated men and women significantly reduces future crime all by itself, separate from any other treatment they receive.

Combined with other effective programs, such as drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling, education can help to reduce crime and recidivism even more effectively.

RAND also demonstrated clearly that an education program pays for itself several times over. Every dollar invested in correctional education creates a return of five dollars in the reduction of future criminal justice costs.

So why are we not spending more criminal justice dollars on education? We literally spend billions on the most expensive—and least effective—option: locking folks behind bars in record numbers.

Let’s take a brief look at the large numbers of people incarcerated in the US and the cost in dollars the American taxpayer must bear. Here are some facts from research and data collected by the US Departments of Justice and Education:

  • Approximately 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., more than in any other developed nation by number and percentage of population;
  • Educational attainment levels among prisoners are far below the national average;
  • A lack of education is a major predictor of future crime;
  • Over two-thirds of those incarcerated are African American and Latino, predominately men;
  • 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released from prison with 600,000 released each year;
  • The annual budget for federal, state and local correctional agencies totals $80 billion.

Most criminologists understand the effectiveness of education and other programs but, because of the American “tough on crime’ campaign going all the way back to the late 1980s, less money is spent on rehabilitation than incarceration.

If we know this is counter-productive, why do our federal leaders, as well as many state leaders, continue to spend little for correctional education programs? Why aren’t they re-directing funding from prison beds to schools and classrooms instead of building more cells?

Research tells us that 95 percent of those incarcerated today will be released within five years. Within three years the majority of those currently behind bars will be returning to society. We are not likely to reduce sentence lengths or parole for most of these people so why don’t we take this opportunity to educate them while behind bars?

There are signs this may be finally be changing.

The current White House has shown real interest in prison reform and investment in programs to reduce recidivism. In a May 2018, a report entitled “Returns on Investments in Recidivism-Reducing Programs” by the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) reviewed and reported on research on mental health, substance abuse and education programs that are cost-effective.

Oddly, the study focused mostly on mental health and substance abuse and did not cite the extensive research report conducted by the RAND Corporation in recent years. The CEA report, however, did say, “We calculate that educational programming needs only a modest impact on recidivism rates of around 2 percent in order to be cost effective.”

The RAND study on correctional education, however, estimated the real impact to be 13 percent, much higher than the two percent needed to be effective.

Research also shows more appalling statistics about the education deficits of the prison population. Most incarcerated people are drop-outs, with more than half of them lacking a high school education. The lack of education does not in itself cause crime but it is highly correlated with other social problems such as criminal behavior, drug addiction, homelessness and poverty. Because under-educated people do not qualify for jobs with a living wage, many resort to illegal ways to support themselves.

So why not redirect more of the correctional budget currently spent on cells to fund more education programs?

It makes simple economic sense if education reduces future criminal behavior. Some advocacy groups are getting the message. For example, the conservative Koch brothers are launching Safe Streets and Second Chances, pilot programs in four states to provide career education, substance-abuse programming and counseling to 1,000 prisoners who will then be released.

This project exemplifies the bipartisan nature of the current movement for the expansion of programs to reduce recidivism and return prisoners to society as productive workers.

If programs for inmates, who lack basic academic and vocational skills, were increased and more people left prison with diplomas and career certifications, researchers could confidently predict a significant drop in future crime. Why can’t we begin remodeling our jails and prisons into educational institutions by re-purposing space with high school completion and job skills programs? If there is no appropriate space, why not move some portable classrooms behind the fence or into the yard?

Research also seems to indicate that higher levels of achievement result in even less crime. There is data indicating that inmates who participate in college commit future crime at even lower levels. Shouldn’t we support college level courses as well? For years the public has generally supported high school education for the incarcerated but not college.

Times have changed and we know that a high school education is no longer sufficient to obtain decent employment. The new standard is at least a two-year degree or a career technical certificate.

Some people believe it is too late to turn adult criminals around to lead a positive life. In fact, inmates do participate and achieve in school behind bars even if they are simply required to attend.

Testimony from former inmates clearly demonstrates how academic success changed their perception of themselves along with their own personal goals. College teachers who work in both the free community and in prisons will tell you that incarcerated students generally do much better than those in the community.

As we know in the free world it is never too late to complete school and to graduate. Lifelong learning really works for most everyone.

Maybe a little history will help explain why we are spending so little on education and more on incarceration. In 1994, with violent crime and drug abuse growing fast, federal and state governments got much tougher on crime, passing laws instituting numerous and more strict sanctions against offenders of all kinds.

Before then, inmates were eligible for Pell grants. Most states had robust college programs for inmates. In a swirl of frenzy and false accusations of fraud about fly-by-night colleges stealing federal money, Congress ended inmate eligibility for Pell grants and severely limited the federal funding levels even for high school, vocational and adult education programs as well.

When many of us were seeking support in our struggle against these foolish cuts I hoped to affect the negative attitudes in the press and contacted columnist George F. Will who agreed to visit a college classroom of Maryland prison inmates using Pell grants. In a Jan 30, 1994 article published in the Detroit Free Press and theWashington Post, entitled “Do Pell grants for prisoners work?,” Will posited that Baltimore’s streets “…may be safer than they would be if he (an inmate nicknamed “Peanut”) had not acquired some social skills with the help of his Pell grant.”

In a discussion the day before releasing the article, Will told me that he would be happy to consider revisiting the issue of correctional education when better research studies documenting the effectiveness of correctional education were available.

In the next several years better research became available, and thanks to the studies noted above that were conducted by Dr. Lois Davis and her research team at the RAND Corporation, many research studies were rigorously reviewed. The RAND publication noted above concluded that “for every dollar spent on correctional education, five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.”

The research had meticulously reviewed every quality research study completed over the last two decades. RAND researchers wrote that the estimate of reduction was conservative and they had not been able to measure other positive results, such as job acquisition, improved family and community conditions and conditions of confinement.

What has been the impact of this study? Has the study resulted in the growth of educational budgets for the incarcerated? Have state and federal correctional education budgets begun to grow as legislators take into account the effectiveness of correctional education? Hardly!

The RAND study had actually pointed out opposite trends in funding. Federal and state budgets for correctional education have been significantly reduced since the 2008 recession, in some states by as much as 20 percent, even while prison populations continued to grow. In an age of soul searching about how to spend tax dollars wisely on cost-effective social programs with high impact, one would hope political leaders would do some serious thinking and take heed of cost-effective research by non-partisan corporations like RAND.

The Obama administration had disseminated and publicized the conclusions of the RAND study and encouraged the adoption of its recommendations. But as it has with so many other important issues, Congress has failed to act on research it originally funded.

With the notable exception of Georgia and California and a few other states, there have been little or no changes in state funding in recent years for the education of the incarcerated. Ever since the mid-1990s, most states have continued to trim education programs in prisons.

One example is California. After he was elected in 2003, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger’s administration decided to drastically cut correctional education programs drastically. Ironically in the last few years, partly as a result of the RAND research, California has dramatically expanded academic and career technology as well as post-secondary programs. For example, inmates also now qualify for free community college tuition while incarcerated.

Another exception is the normally conservative state Georgia. It has also taken to heart the RAND research and re-designed its entire correctional education system and also increased state funding dramatically. A post for a statewide superintendent of prison schools was created. Many more teachers were hired and programs implemented. And an investment was made in educational technology to modernize instruction and teach computer skills necessary for today’s job market.

While now admitting the RAND research is solid, most politicians continue to say no to additional funds because there are more pressing needs. Never mind that we were simply asking for redirection of current budgets, not additional outlays of public funds.

Fortunately for the US, some leaders have begun to rethink the costly and mostly ineffective “Get Tough on Crime” movement of the last 30 years. That terribly misguided effort to stem the rise of murder, violence and the drug epidemic resulted in the so-called “Three Strikes and You are Out” legislation signed by President Bill Clinton and then copied into state law by many governors and state legislators.

Literally, millions of people have been incarcerated for longer periods of time at the cost of billions of dollars with additional and terribly negative impacts on our communities and families. Only when it had become apparent that the US could no longer pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the criminal justice system have political leaders started taking a serious look at the negative results of the draconian and unjust crime reduction laws.

President George W. Bush and other political leaders had begun to realize the folly of the “Three Strikes and You Are Out” laws of the 1990s. Bush recommended the passage of the Second Chance Act of 2002 in one of his early State of the Union addresses. The momentum has slowly grown since and reformation has become a bipartisan issue. Instead of spending billions on incarceration some are beginning to look at less costly rehabilitation programs and reentry as a way to reduce future crime.

There are now strong efforts (at the federal level to rethink how we are doing correctional business. Those of us in the education, drug rehabilitation and mental health areas are working to persuade political leaders to bring about change in the laws and priorities in budgets.

Ironically, one of the most recent examples at the federal level is the fight within the White House between Attorney General Sessions and Jared Kushner over the basic philosophy of corrections and the role of prisons to build programs that reduce recidivism. An article in the New York Times illustrates the strong feelings among political leaders, particularly in the Senate, about the direction of prison reform.

Kushner, partly as a result of his own father’s incarceration in the federal Bureau of Prisons, believes in the need for more rehabilitation and reentry programs. Sessions, unfortunately, remains one of the most steadfast believers in longer sentences and tough drug laws.

Positive change can be painfully slow. However, when the US does become interested in a particular issue, it is amazing how quickly it can retool and redirect its resources.  For those of us old enough to remember, we did it by putting a man on the moon when the Russians threatened US leadership in the space race.

Hopefully, we can redirect ourselves again to help change the direction of the lives of so many people returning to society after years of incarceration.

Education is not rocket science.

We already know how to teach people to read, write, do math and train for jobs. For the sake of the incarcerated and, literally, for our own health and safety, let’s build and open more school programs in our prisons and jails. Education does reduce recidivism!

Chief Justice Warren Burger said it best, in a 1987 speech to the American Bar Association:

We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short term benefits — winning battles while losing the war. It is wrong, it is expensive, it is stupid.

Finally, I hope that since we now have the solid research George Will asked for, he might consider looking at correctional education programs again, take to heart the RAND conclusions, and write a follow-up to article about “Peanut”.

We continue to need serious political writers, both liberals and conservatives, to urge government and courts to get really “tough on crime” and sentence criminals to do their time in school to straighten out their lives.

We need to literally “throw the book at them.”

Stephen Steurer

Stephen Steurer

Stephen J. Steurer, Ph.D, is currently the Reentry Advocate for the non-profit CURE National, one of the founders of the non-profit Maryland Correctional Education Enhancement Associates, the volunteer Education/Reentry Coordinator at the Howard County Detention Center in Maryland , and a consultant to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. He has served as a consultant to the Vera Foundation for Pathways post-secondary education project in New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan, to the RAND Corporation on evaluation of correctional education programs, and as Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association. He welcomes comments from readers.


The Case For Hiring Ex-Criminals

A report issued last week by the American Civil Liberties Union implores the business community to put people with criminal records– that’s one-third of adults in the U.S.– back to work, for the good of the economy.

A report issued last week by the American Civil Liberties Union implores the business community to help put people with criminal records–that’s one-third of adults in the U.S.– back to work, for the good of the economy.

According to a 2016 study by the Center for Economy and Policy Research, barriers to employment for people with a criminal history is costing the U.S. between $78 and $87 billion in annual GDP. And, as the ACLU points out, unemployment is the most significant factor in recidivism, leading to increased prison costs.

“By expanding the hiring pool to include people with criminal histories, companies can improve their bottom line, reduce recidivism and incarceration costs, avoid discriminatory practices, and increase public safety,” the report reads.

Several recent studies have found that people with a criminal record tend to keep their jobs longer, and can reduce a company’s rate of employee turnover. The latest literature includes a Northwestern University report on Criminal Background and Job Performance (2017), and an ongoing investigation by the Johns Hopkins Health Resource Center.

The ACLU cites Walmart and Koch Industries, both of whom have adopted ‘Ban-the-Box’ practices, as fair chance leaders in the business community. Companies that adhere to these policies do not ask job seekers to disclose criminal history until a conditional offer has been made. In the case of Walmart, a background check is only performed once someone has accepted an offer, and hiring teams and HR personnel are not made aware of any convictions disclosed– “only whether the candidate is eligible for hire or deferred for hire to a later date based on the final results of the report.” Candidates with a criminal history are allowed to participate in a review, providing additional information about education, and efforts at rehabilitation.

In addition to advocating for wider adoption of Ban-the-Box legislation, the ACLU advises companies to consider pair with local workforce development programs, whocan advise them on tax credits, offer case management for employees with criminal histories, and educate companies on state and local laws.

A major concern for employers is liability: in hiring someone with a criminal record, companies fear it will be difficult to get private malfeasance insurance for that individual, or that they will be found negligible if the employee harms someone else on the job. But according to the ACLU, liability risk is actually low for employers who follow the national Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines. On the policy side, the ACLU advocates for the expansion of state laws that restrict employee liability. Several states have already adopted such legislation, including Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Tennessee.

Ultimately, argues the ACLU report, education is the key to reducing unemployment, recidivism, and prison costs: for every $1 spent on education, $5 is saved on correctional costs. The business community can help by partnering with local workforce development programs; offering tuition assistance; lobbying legislators to expand prison education programs, as well as educational institutions to ‘Ban the Box’ themselves.