Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lee Baca Raises the Education Bar

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste," went the old tagline for the United Negro College Fund. It dates me a bit, I realize, even to remember those long-ago TV commercials.

The truth of the statement, however, remains unalterably true. Indeed, it is truer than ever, given how closely tied job prospects  have become to educational attainment.

For that reason, one of the nation's most prominent law enforcement officers has become the champion for putting in place programs for inmates to get a better education. As NPR recently reported, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in instituting an Education-Based Incarceration Initiative to promote intellectual development among prisoners in his 160,000-inmate jail system.

The program is now in a beta phase, with about 2,000 inmates testing an ambitious curriculum. The areas of instruction range from traditional subjects like reading, writing, and science to life skills and decision-making. The instruction is intended to help inmates progess to more adult levels of thinking, in which they make better choices and commit fewer new crimes.

Jail is, admittedly, a rather unlikely setting for a renewed emphasis on education. For one thing, jail stays tend to be quite short compared to prison sentences. But Baca clearly believes that improved education has to start somewhere, if we are ever to make real progress in reducing the recidivism rate.

As NPR said in its clever headline, the sheriff is attempting to teach inmates to get out of jail. Not by physical escape, but by an education that is the key to the future.

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