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Originally published March 4, 2013 at 4:06 PM | Page modified March 4, 2013 at 4:06 PM

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Editorial: Lift state ban on higher-education funding for prison inmates

Postsecondary education in prison is a way to reduce the chance of prisoners relapsing into criminal behavior. The state Legislature should not block funding for these programs.

Seattle Times Editorial

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EDUCATION helps lower prison recidivism rates, thereby reducing crime. Washington legislators should lift a ban on using state funds for higher education in prison.

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, proposes House Bill 1429 to allow the state Department of Corrections to reallocate the agency’s existing education funds to include higher education.

Two decades ago, the Legislature prohibited using state money for postsecondary in-prison education programs.

Federal grants and other private resources currently pay for in-prison associate-degree programs. Inmates engaged in learning are easier to manage, numerous studies have found. They also are better prepared with job skills and vocational training to return to society and contribute to a more productive workforce for in-prison jobs. HB 1429 would help expand associate-degree programs in prison.

About 60 percent of the 17,371 state inmates are serving sentences of 10 years or fewer. Many are enrolled in skills-building efforts. Nearly 3,000 are enrolled in Basic Education and vocational programs. An additional 360 are enrolled in the associate-degree programs at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, the Washington State Penitentiary and the Academic Degree Programs through Walla Walla Community College.

For every $5,000 invested in education, there is a $20,000 benefit in cost savings from fewer costly incarcerations and use of social services, according to a Washington State Institute of Public Policy report ordered by the 2009 state Legislature. Further savings come from crimes avoided, including property losses, medical costs, lost earnings and costs associated with a reduced quality of life.

An argument could be made that state dollars should be prioritized for victims of crime or helping would-be criminals make better choices. But prison officials are not asking for more money, they are asking for the flexibility to invest some of the agency’s current education budget in higher education.

Every year, about 8,000 inmates are released from Washington prisons. HB 1429 is rooted in a smart principle of giving those who have served their time a fresh start. The stability that comes from education pays dividends in public safety as well.

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