Helping prison inmates get an education is no soft-on-crime sop. It's a pragmatic, cost-effective way of fighting crime.
Studies have long indicated that people who participate in education programs while behind bars are less likely to return to prison. But such programs have withered in many parts of the United States.
California is poised to reverse that trend. Legislators there have passed a plan to broadly strengthen education for the state's 160,000 inmates. The program would not be controlled by prison wardens, as in the past. Rather, it would have its own governing board, within the corrections department. There'd be a state superintendent of prison education.
This structure would give the program built-in political support - making budget and staff erosion less likely.
The final say on whether the bill becomes law belongs to Gov. Gray Davis. He's known as a crime fighter, but he's also a strong backer of education. Those stands should incline him toward signing the measure.
There's a broader issue here, too - whether the idea of prisons as places where rehabilitation is possible can be revived. If educational gaps, including illiteracy, can be filled, people are more likely to become useful citizens.
Education is a major component in rehabilitation, but it's not the only one. The prison system in Ohio, for example, is experimenting with programs to give incarcerated fathers more time with their children. Allowing men to reestablish meaningful family relationships is another way to encourage a life other than crime.
Some states are wrestling with whether to let inmates vote - either once they're released or, in the case of Massachusetts, while they're still in prison. Keeping the door open to that fundamental right could encourage responsible citizenship.
Tough punishment is not at issue. It's being dealt out, as prison population figures show. But how much of that population can be salvaged as productive members of society? That's a question more states should face, not sidestep.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society