Marcella Alsan & Arkey M. Barnett & Peter Hull & Crystal Yang, 2024. “‘Something Works” in U.S. Jails: Misconduct and Recidivism Effects of the IGNITE Program," NBER Working Papers 32282, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

What’s the issue?

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Over 2 million individuals are held in correctional facilities daily. Over 600,000 people are held in local jails. Recidivism (when a formerly incarcerated person is re-arrested) is common. However, the United States has not historically emphasized rehabilitation programs, and a popular view in U.S. correctional policy is that “nothing works.”

What does the research say?

A new study finds that inmates who took part in an innovative county jail education program were less likely to return to jail, and they also built their skillsets at relatively low cost.

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research assesses the impact of the education program in Flint, Michigan, called Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education (IGNITE). The program was launched in 2020 by Genesee County Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson and offers courses in reading skills, finance, nutrition, and trades such as welding.

The research team comprised Professor Marcella Alsan from Harvard Kennedy School and Professor Crystal Yang from Harvard Law School, along with colleagues Professor Peter Hull from Brown University and PhD student Arkey Barnett from the University of Michigan. They found:

  • One month of inmate participation in IGNITE decreased returns to jail after release by 18% over the next three months and 23% over a year.
  • Participants gained a full grade level of improvement in reading and math scores, which likely contributed to the recidivism reductions.
  • Taking part in IGNITE for one additional month reduced major misconduct incidents in the jail each week by 49%.
  • One month of program exposure saves around $5,600 per person per year.

The IGNITE program has been endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and is rolling out in other facilities across the United States.

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