There are around 24,000 people housed in Kentucky’s state prisons, and while 95 percent of them will eventually be released, 3 out of every 4 will likely be arrested again. This is because although Kentucky has made great strides in criminal justice reform, it hasn’t adequately addressed all of its problems. Yet with a new gubernatorial administration taking office, there’s hope that criminal justice reform will again be prioritized in a way that reduces recidivism rates by better preparing the formerly incarcerated to re-enter society.

Kentucky was actually one of a handful of trailblazing states that championed criminal justice reform back in 2011, when the Legislature passed House Bill 463. The bill reduced sentences for lower-level drug offenses, mandated a specific inmate supervision period upon release, reduced penalties for minor parole violations, and provided inmates access to substance abuse treatment. The law also reoriented the criminal justice system’s focus toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.

While the Bluegrass State’s initial reforms moved the needle in the right direction, they were not enough to forestall the state’s prison and jail population growth, which has surged from 21,500 in 2011 to over 24,000 today. Perhaps most troublingly, parole violators make up 60 percent of Kentucky’s new prison entries, and the recidivism rate in the commonwealth stands at 41 percent.

Recidivism is a problem that states and communities across the nation are trying to tackle, and they need to. Recidivism affects us all as taxpayers, family members and community members. While there are many reasons for the formerly incarcerated to commit further crimes after their release, it has become increasingly clear these people are struggling to reintegrate into society in part because of their lower education levels, which makes it even harder for them to find work after incarceration.

Vocational training and educational programs behind bars can help lower recidivism rates by preparing the incarcerated to re-enter society. Inmates who receive a GED while in prison are 30 percent less likely to return to prison than their peers, and those who take advantage of vocational training have a 28 percent higher chance of finding employment upon re-entry than those who do not. These education programs provide the formerly incarcerated with a strong foundation to build off of and make it easier for them to obtain gainful employment once they are released. When former inmates find employment, they are 32 percent less likely to be arrested for a subsequent crime than those who struggle to land a job. This shows that when people have the proper tools upon re-entering society, they can be more successful.

New policies are desperately needed to address this longstanding issue. After all, we as a society should not just put people behind bars, but equip them with vocational skills and training that will help them become productive members of society, which will benefit everyone.

The sad truth is Kentucky’s current system is not doing all it can to support individuals behind bars, and we all suffer for it. The recidivism problem cannot be solved by locking people up and throwing away the key; it can only be fixed when communities come together to push for policies that will invest in the futures of those who are incarcerated.

Education has a transformative power that gives people the ability to better themselves. All Kentuckians, from Pikeville to Paducah, are just one mistake away from catastrophe, but if we invest in educational and vocational skills programs, we can help people improve their present and future circumstances. As legislators look for new ideas to help solve criminal justice problems in 2020, they ought to put more resources into education for inmates; it is the key to their future success.

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