Illiteracy and Incarceration in America

The statistics are bleak: Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The 4th grade is the watershed year. We can predict that if a child is not reading proficiently in the 4th grade, he or she will have approximately a 78% chance of catching up.[1] Two-thirds (72%).

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), the definition of literacy has two parts:  both task and skill based. The task-based definition of literacy, used in both the 1992 and 2003 assessments, focuses on the everyday literacy tasks an adult can and cannot perform.

The 2003 NAAL study adds a complementary skills-based definition of literacy that focuses on the knowledge and skills an adult must possess to perform these tasks. These skills range from basic, word-level skills (such as recognizing words) to higher level skills (such as drawing appropriate inferences from continuous text). Information provided by the 2003 NAAL study is intended to improve understanding of the skill differences between adults who can perform relatively challenging literacy tasks and those who are not.

The correlation between illiteracy and incarceration gets worse from there.

  • 85% of all juveniles involved in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
  • More than 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • Penal records show that inmates have a 16% of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help.
  • The Justice Department sates, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”

We have the power to do something to change these dismal statistics, though the obstacles can be huge. Once a week I tutor at risk children in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) East Side Learning Center program, in hopes that I make a difference in one life. However, due to a $6 million shortfall, Twin Cities United Way announced in early 2017 a Twin Cities literacy programs would be cut. All. That included where I tutor. The organization lost $90,000 or a quarter of their budget. Private donations are attempting to close the gap.

Perhaps the best illustration of how devastating these cuts are comes from Jeannie Seeley-Smith, CEO and President of Perspectives, a human service agency in St. Louis Park, MN. Cuts to Perspectives will eliminate the agency’s “Reading by the 3rd Grade”, another literacy program for low income children.

“I’ve been around for 35 years so I am used to the ebb and flow of dollars,” said Perspectives CEO and President Jeannie Seeley-Smith. “I understand you can’t take blood from a turnip, but I don’t understand why you cut children’s programs. That to me is a very poor decision when we are looking to the future and prevention. You just cut one of the most vulnerable areas.”

The link between illiteracy and incarceration cannot be denied. Cutting literacy programs will only increase the dismal statistics. Literacy in both reading and writing is the only way to break this cycle.

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