Does Education Influence Incarceration?

Almost one percent of the US population lives in a jail cell. Any time a politically-charged topic like incarceration is discussed, it often involves a discussion of education. The two topics are intertwined because the data suggests at the very least a correlation between one and another. In fact, you can see the connection visually with just two pieces of geographic data. We collected the educational-attainment rates of every US state and combined it with the incarceration rates. When plotted on a map, you can use BatchGeo’s multi-column grouping and filtering to see the relationship between education and incarceration.

View Graduation Rates vs Incarceration Rates in a full screen map

The states with the most prisoners per 100,000 people are Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas. These states are also at or below the US average of 85% of the population with a high school diploma.

On the flip side, the states with the fewest prison rate are Maine, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. All but Rhode Island have graduation rates well above the US average.

The trend continues throughout the data. Of the 25 states with the highest prison populations, almost half (12) are below the national average for high school graduation rate. By contrast, 80% of the other half of the states, where prison populations at lower, have graduation rates above the national average.

The data is not as convincing for higher levels of education. In fact, there’s no discernible pattern. Perhaps that is why most of the research focuses on high school graduation rates.

The New York Times reported in 2009 that 10% of all dropouts in the US are in jail. That statistic is staggering, especially compared with high school graduates, who only make up 3% of the prison population. Put another way, teens that don’t finish high school are over than three times more likely than their graduated peers to go to jail.

The reverse paints the picture even more dire picture, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics
Special Report from 2003. Statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow found that 59% of America’s federal prison inmates did not complete high school. Further, 75% of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts.

There’s some good news, as we get into graduation season. If you know one of the 3.3 million estimated Americans who will graduate this year, they have a much better chance of an unincarcerated future.