IV. Education’s Impact on Crime
The topic of education and crime can be approached from many different perspectives, so a framework for a basic understanding must be developed. The first area of discussion is education’s impact on crime and criminal behavior. Although this issue is debatable, there is an overwhelming consensus among public officials, academics, teachers, and parents that postsecondary education is one of the most successful and cost-effective methods of preventing crime. Much of this consensus has been derived from the volumes of empirical research that has examined educational attainment as it relates to crime trends and public safety. Comparisons of state-level education data and crime and incarceration rates have consistently supported the fact that states that have focused the most on education (in general, financial support) tend to have lower rates of violent crime and incarceration. Although education can never be viewed as a “cure all” or magic bullet that will guarantee reductions in criminal activity or crime rates, research suggests that increased investments in quality education can have a positive public safety benefit.
A. Education as Crime Prevention
One of the most dominant ideas under the umbrella concept of education’s impact on crime is the belief that a reduction in crime can most often be achieved by increased crime prevention and that the most effective form of crime prevention is achieved through education. Most people would argue that education can be an important element in preventing individuals from engaging in criminal behavior. Given the previous discussions in this research paper, increased levels of education generally lead to many other characteristics that are viewed as positive correlates of lessening one’s criminal or antisocial behavior.
The literature generally offers two explanations for the preventive force of education on crime and antisocial behavior. The first is that education may change individuals’ preferences (and, in turn, their breadth of choices). The second explanation is that education contributes to a lower time preference (i.e., learning the consequences of one’s actions often make that individual postpone the direct satisfaction of needs). Some scholars argue that education leads to a lower time preference for consumption in the present (teaching one the potential negative aspects of immediate gratification) and a higher time preference for consumption in the future (teaching one the benefits of working in the present to prepare for the future).
Many researchers argue that formal education (i.e., educational attainment) has a very strong impact on teaching students (through the study of history, sociology, and other subjects) on which they should focus more of their attention in the future. Formal schooling and instruction can communicate images of the situations and difficulties of adult life, which are inevitable future issues for all adolescents. Thus, educated people should be more productive at reducing the remoteness of future pleasures.
Many researchers also argue that the more education an individual has, the more heavily he or she will weigh the future consequences (i.e., punishment) of his or her current criminal or antisocial actions. If more education leads individuals to understand the benefit of delayed gratification, then people with a higher education should be deterred from committing criminal acts. It is believed that higher levels of education will make the immediate gratification of an individual’s preferences and desires through criminal activities less important.
Most empirical studies have addressed the relationship between education and crime. Some have found that adolescents who are involved in paid employment or attend K–12 education are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. This suggests that a reduction in criminal behavior contributes largely to the social rate of return for the monies spent on education in the United States. There is much debate on the correlation between the money spent on education and the quality of education and its resultant overall impact on criminal behavior.
Not all studies find that more highly educated people are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, however. Some researchers argue that a country’s average education level does not necessarily have a statistically significant effect on the number of violent crimes (e.g., homicides and robberies). As discussed earlier, many have also argued that increased levels of education actually facilitate the criminal behavior in some individuals because of their increased abilities and knowledge (e.g., computer fraud, pyramid schemes).
The following is a list of empirically supported findings about the connections between crime prevention and education:
- Most studies have found that graduation rates are generally associated with positive public safety outcomes and lower crime rates for communities.
- States with higher levels of educational attainment also have crime rates lower than the national average.
- States with higher college enrollment rates experience lower violent crime rates than states with lower college enrollment rates.
- States that make more significant monetary investments in higher education experience more positive public safety outcomes and lower crime rates.
- The risk of incarceration, higher violent crime rates, and low educational attainment are concentrated among communities of color, whose members are more likely to suffer from barriers to educational opportunities.
- Disparities in educational opportunities contribute to a situation in which communities of color experience less educational attainment than whites, are more likely to be incarcerated, and are more likely to face higher violent crime rates.
For most people, the connection between education and crime prevention is easy to see. Criminologists have spent centuries trying to determine the causes of criminal and antisocial behavior. A central component that emerges over and over is the idea of individual motivation and desire. Human motivation and desire are very complex natural occurrences, and they are difficult to understand, although most people would argue that it is easy to understand the connection between these traits and criminal behavior.
B. The Connection Between Intelligence (IQ) and Crime
Many trends have been supported by contemporary research that has examined possible connections between education and criminal behavior. That levels of education (higher and lower) are significant in the manifestation of criminal behavior has received empirical support, as has the notion that individuals with learning disabilities (and thus with lower education, intelligence, and coping skills) are more prone to violent behavior.
The major reason for these connections is the interrelated causal pattern of events that occur in learning, with education at the center. School achievement is generally predictive of prosocial behavior, designated as upholding the moral values of a society. Most people would argue that school achievement predicts prosocial behavior because in most societies academic achievement is interrelated with several other variables, such as financial success, high self-esteem, and an internal locus of control. This particular model may account for the reasoning behind the general idea that individuals with a high IQ generally have fewer tendencies for criminal behavior than individuals with a low IQ.
Investigations of the connection between criminal behavior and IQ often are based on the general hypothesis that having a higher IQ results in easier achievement in school. As stated earlier, doing well academically is associated with several societal factors as well. Individuals with a lower IQ may not succeed as much academically, which would result in lower self-esteem and not as much financial success, resulting in an increased disposition toward criminal behavior. This would seem to highlight the importance of stressing education and addressing issues of learning disabilities at an early age to prevent, or at least mitigate, these negative attributes, thus preventing future criminal behavior and the resulting increased crime rates.
The connection between one’s intelligence level and his or her criminal behavior is a very complicated and controversial area. Empirical research most often finds that IQ and crime are actually negatively correlated; that is, as one increases, the other decreases. Explanations for this generally fall into three approaches: (1) IQ and crime are spuriously, not causally, correlated; (2) low IQ increases criminal behavior; and (3) criminal behavior actually decreases IQ.
There are also popular arguments against IQ as a cause of crime. Some scholars argue that standardized IQ tests measure only middle-class knowledge and values instead of innate human intelligence. As a result, the fact that most minority groups and impoverished populations score lower on IQ tests simply reflects their diverse cultural backgrounds. These same groups also commit proportionately more crime because they suffer structural disadvantages, such as poverty and discrimination. Consequently, the same people who score low on IQ tests also tend to commit more crime, and so IQ and crime are empirically correlated. Thus, this correlation is not causal but reflects only culturally biased testing of intelligence (see Gardner, 1993).
A variation of this argument holds that the structural disadvantages that increase crime rates also reduce educational opportunities, thus lessening individuals’ ability and motivation to score well on IQ tests. Many researchers argue that the IQ–crime correlation occurs only because both are rooted in structural disadvantage, which, in statistical terms, represents a spurious correlation at best. Although these discrimination-type hypotheses have wide appeal, they have received fairly little support in empirical studies, because IQ and crime are significantly correlated within race and class groups as well as when one statistically controls for race, class, test-taking ability, and test-taking motivation.
Another argument against IQ as a cause of crime holds that schoolteachers and administrators treat students differently according to their perceptions of the students’ intelligence, thus giving negative labels and fewer educational opportunities to those whom they see as less intelligent. These labels and constrained opportunities in turn produce feelings of alienation and resentment that lead students toward delinquent peers and criminal behavior. As such, society’s reaction to intelligence, and not any property of intelligence itself, increases criminal behavior. Unfortunately, few studies have adequately tested this labeling-type hypothesis (i.e., that deviance is derived from the labeling and mistreatment of certain individuals).
C. Education and Recidivism
Given the various aspects of this discussion, many people argue that the U.S. government should resume its long-standing policy of releasing a portion of Pell Grants (student educational grants) and other types of financial aid to qualified incarcerated individuals. They argue that the benefits of such a practice (reductions in recidivism rates) will always far outweigh the public protests against such efforts (arguing that this reduces the funds available to nonincarcerated individuals).
The focus of the pro-grant arguments is that resuming this policy would drastically decrease rates of recidivism and save individual states millions of dollars each year. Again, there seems to be overwhelming consensus among many people that postsecondary education is the most successful and cost-effective method of preventing crime. However, this often becomes controversial when one starts applying these ideas to people who have already committed criminal acts. More than 1.5 million individuals are housed in adult correctional facilities in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice generally portrays offenders as impoverished and uneducated prior to incarceration. Inside American prisons, many adult inmates are illiterate, and many more are functionally illiterate.
Most researchers would argue that social, psychological, and demographic factors correlate strongly with recidivism. Most persons are released from prison into communities unskilled, undereducated, and highly likely to become reinvolved in crime. Rates of recidivism in the United States are extraordinarily high. Although prison-based education has been found to be the single most effective tool for lowering recidivism, today these programs are almost nonexistent. Many would also argue that prison education is far more effective at reducing recidivism than are boot camps, shock incarceration, or vocational training.
In response to the American public’s growing fear of crime and the call for more punitive measures to combat such fear, many legislators and policymakers have promoted building more prisons, enacting harsher sentencing legislation, and eliminating various programs inside prisons and jails. With rearrest rates increasing almost daily, it is clear that incarceration alone is not working in the United States. In fact, the “get tough” philosophy (originating in the mid-1980s), which pushes for more incarceration, punishment, and limitations of the activities available to prisoners, has often resulted in the elimination of strategies and programs that seek to prevent or reduce crime. As has been discussed repeatedly in this research paper, research has consistently shown that quality education is one of the most effective forms of crime prevention and that educational skills can help deter young people from committing criminal acts as well as greatly decrease the likelihood that people will return to crime after release from prison.
Despite this evidence of their extraordinary effectiveness, educational programs in correctional facilities have in many cases been completely eliminated. As of 2008, more than 1.6 million individuals were housed in adult correctional facilities in the United States, and at least 99,682 juveniles are in custody. The majority of these individuals will be released into communities unskilled, undereducated, and highly likely to become reinvolved in criminal activity. With so many ex-offenders returning to prison, it would seem clear that the punitive, incarceration-based approach to crime prevention has not worked as a basis for criminal justice policy in America. Therefore, it should not be surprising that so many people argue that the country needs to promote policies and procedures that are successful. Education, particularly at the college level, can afford individuals with the opportunities to achieve and maintain productive and crime-free lives and help to create safer communities for all.