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Behind bars, no diploma

Lack of education a common trait among Ga. prison inmates

POSTED: January 4, 2014 11:55 p.m.

While considered a milestone for most, a high school degree is an achievement that has escaped a sizable segment of one population: Georgians in the state prison system.

“I’m astounded to see the number of people who come before me on criminal matters who do not have a high school education,” Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal said.

Statistics for offenders in Georgia point to a wide gap in educational achievement between the state’s general population and the nearly 60,000 individuals in the state prison system.

Only 44.5 percent of male inmates and 58.4 percent of female inmates in Georgia prisons have a high school diploma, far below the general population, according to Georgia Department of Corrections figures. Less than 2 percent of male inmates have college degrees.

Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris, who has represented indigent clients for more than three decades, said the issue isn’t as simple as saying one factor — lack of education — leads to a greater likelihood of breaking the law. A lack of education could stem from lower socioeconomic status, he said, which affects several aspects of criminal behavior.

“There’s a lot of things, and all these things are intermingled together. There are myriad arguments,” said Morris, who heads the Northeastern Judicial circuit public defense office for Hall and Dawson Counties.

“People from a lower socioeconomic standing (are) put in a situation where they’re to be caught more,” Morris said, citing factors that include homelessness, living in a neighborhood with high crime and a high police presence.

And in court, it might be harder for members of a jury to relate to someone from that background, Morris said.

“They don’t have people to support them when they come to court. They don’t know how to conduct themselves in a way that is favorable, and all of these things relate to credibility. People look to relate to people who are like them versus the appearance and demeanor of something unfamiliar,” he said.

That demeanor could be the direct result of a harder life, he said.

“Part of it is socioeconomic, part of it is parents,” he said. “People take natural paths based on opportunities.”

But the opportunity that comes with an education is why Deal often makes it a part of a sentence that an offender must obtain a GED.

“I frequently make that a condition if they have a probation sentence, or even custodial time (imprisonment) with probation to follow, I’ll make that a condition,” Deal said. “Certainly the better educated you are, the more qualified you are to have a job. Many employers require a high school diploma.”

Deal said a goal of criminal justice reform is to allow offenders to pursue a place in society rather than languish behind bars, strangled by their status as a convict.

“Unfortunately, you serve your sentence, but the consequences follow you for the rest of your life, even if you have been reformed in prison,” Deal said. “If you come out of prison and can’t get a job where you can earn a living to help support yourself and your family, your chances of going back into a life of crime are great.”

Morris thinks education can help rehabilitate inmates, but also said abusive conditions in prison often are ignored as a factor.

“I think really the tragic part is you spend all this time and energy educating people and you put people in the penitentiary for a while and it’s all wiped away,” he said.

“The things that happen to them are unspoken of; nobody ever talks about it, but it does happen,” he said, citing what he said are common reports of physical and sexual abuse.

Morris said an inmate who is beaten, shanked and raped in prison might be further emotionally scarred or hardened, making reform tougher.

“Once you’re there, you have to do the best you can,” he said. “These people have to do the best they can, and now they come back out and there’s very little support or resources for them.

“It just seems crazy that you spend all this money and time – several hundred thousand dollars from kindergarden through high school, and you end up getting someone with different values than what was taught them.”

In addition to overseeing felony cases, Deal heads the Hall County Drug Court, an alternative sentencing program under the wing of the court’s Treatment Services.

The program’s concept is similar to the idea of a re-entry court and program, giving participants the chance to develop the skills, including education, to become productive members of society.

“For our drug court program you have to work full time, go to school full time, or a combination of the two,” Deal said. “We try to incentivize them to get a GED. We definitely push the education component in drug court.”

The program’s system of sanctions and incentives are another way, besides sentencing, that Deal can compel an offender to reach for higher educational goals.

“Oftentimes I would give them an incentive such as, if you spend money toward obtaining your GED, I’ll let you use that toward the fine,” Deal said. “I’d rather you use that toward being a better citizen than just paying a fine.”

An important part of re-entry includes offenders returning to the communities where they were convicted and avoiding further trouble.

“I think the whole host of this idea is that these people are going to return to our community, and we’ve got to give them an opportunity to improve their lives to get a job and pull themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into,” Deal said.

“Certainly we would rather people get an education and not turn to a life of crime, but I think it’s just human nature that some folks are going to get in trouble. We have to give them the tools and the opportunity to improve their station in life.

“These people come back to our communities. It’s not like they’re staying in some far-off place.”


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