Innovative Education Can Help Fight Crime in Latin America

Latin America is among the most violent regions of the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which each year releases its annual report on violence and the drug trade, has the bad news: with just 8 percent of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for over 30 percent of global violent deaths. The region’s homicide rate—28 murders per 100,000 inhabitants—contrasts with 18 per 100,000 in all of Africa.

Apart from the human tragedies that make up such statistics, high levels of violence create a major barrier to economic development. Insecurity hobbles the creation of social and human capital, weakening efforts to improve education and health, while also threatening much-needed investment. U.N. figures show that the cumulative impact of violence worldwide is as much as 11 percent of global GDP; in Latin America, homicide alone is estimated to shave off over 4 percent of GDP.

Latin America’s imprisoned population is at the center of this crisis. The World Prison Population List, a project of the International Centre for Prison Studies, tracks incarceration around the world. Its most recent report finds that out of the world’s 10 million prisoners, 1.3 million belong to Latin America—a rate of 229 inmates per 100,000 people, far higher than the world average of 144. And over the past two decades, the Latin America’s incarceration rates have ballooned by 120 percent as the drug wars have intensified.

The spike in the prison population has created a policy conundrum for nearly every country: how to improve the “employability” of inmates in order to allow them to reenter the labor force? This challenge, in turn, raises a number of questions about which programs are most effective in bringing inmates back to society, and what role formal and informal education programs can play.

What is clear is that the potential benefits—to both society and the state budget—of successfully reintegrating inmates are huge. The RAND Corporation, in a major 2013 study, found that every dollar spent on prison educational programs saved between $4 and $5 by reducing recidivism rates. In particular, the suite of educational practices known as technical and vocational training lead to a 43 percent lower chance that inmates would return to prison.

The potential of prison education is particularly promising in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile, where more than 40 percent of inmates are recidivists. Prison experts point out that the current approach is to give inmates little more than a “bus ticket and some pocket change” upon release, when what is needed is a comprehensive reintegration process.

As the RAND researchers found, increasing offenders’ education level is perhaps the single most effective way to boost their chances for positive re-entry into society. Especially given that many, if not most, inmates had failed to finish even basic elementary school before their incarceration, finding jobs without some sort of augmentation of their skills unsurprisingly proves difficult. RAND finds that “the odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not.”

There have also been interesting findings on the potential for education technologies, including web-based e-learning, to expand classroom access to both inmates and those recently released from prison. In terms of comparative effectiveness, e-learning may be equivalent to more traditional methods: “learning gains in both reading and in math among inmates exposed to computer assisted instruction were similar to learning gains made by inmates taught through traditional (face-to-face) instruction methods,” argues RAND.

If that is the case, then e-learning options have a major advantage—the way in which they reduce the stigmatization faced by inmates in the outside world. That stigma is one of the main obstacles for ex-offenders in pursuing coursework in a traditional classroom setting. However, by allowing former inmates to continue their education with a level of anonymity, retention rates—and thus graduation rates—are higher.

Thus, educational re-entry programs based on e-learning may well be an effective, and very cost-effective, tool for reducing recidivism and thereby reducing the spike in violent crime that has shaken Latin America. As the RAND report points out, “the direct costs of reincarceration were far greater than the direct costs of providing correctional education.”

Spending money smarter will be key if Latin America is to overcome its dramatic human capital shortfall—one that has only been exacerbated by the recent wave of criminality. The region is currently in a negative feedback loop where more crime leads to increased incarceration and worse educational and employment opportunities. To reverse that trend, policymakers and education providers should be working together to find ways to prevent crime through innovative educational programs.