Go to Jail, Go to School

By running its own charter school for inmates, the San Francisco sheriff's office is making a big dent in recidivism.
July 23, 2015
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Last week, President Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to highlight his push to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system. There's certainly plenty of room for improvement, and the San Francisco County sheriff's office is addressing one particularly difficult aspect of the problem with an innovative approach to reducing recidivism and helping inmates reintegrate into society.

Building on data showing that inmates who earn a high school diploma are much less likely to land back in jail, back in 2003 the San Francisco Sheriff's Department (SFSD) sought and received a charter to open a high school for adult inmates in a county jail. Today Five Keys Charter School remains the country's only charter school operated by a sheriff's department.

Having the charter allowed the department to design content and a school structure to meet the complex needs of incarcerated students. The curriculum includes a focus on "restorative justice" -- working to repair the harm caused by criminal behavior -- as well as conflict-resolution techniques designed to help inmates avoid violence.

In 2008, SFSD applied for and was granted two additional charters: one that allowed it to expand to a downtown facility that houses women and a second to open an independent study division for former inmates to work independently and meet with a teacher once or twice a week. Five Keys also expanded from a high school to a comprehensive K-12 school because, while some students were relatively close to earning a high school diploma, most needed longer-term intervention.

And in an unprecedented cooperative effort, in 2012 the program expanded into the Los Angeles County jails, where the program operates under a contract with Five Keys. Today the program is in all of the Los Angeles and San Francisco county jails and also has more than 30 community campuses. In all, it serves more than 8,000 current and former inmates each year.

The results are impressive. California's overall recidivism rate is 68 percent; for Five Keys students, it's 28 percent. During the 2013-14 school year, 58 percent of Five Keys students improved their reading ability by an average of two grade levels; 59 percent improved their math skills by the same degree. The average annual rate of inmate-on-inmate crime is 12 percent in the county jails, but it's only 2 percent for those in the educational programs.

The program was recently selected as the 2015 winner of the Better Government Competition, which is sponsored by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public-policy think tank. (I am affiliated with Pioneer as a senior fellow but was not involved in this year's competition.)

Because unlike for other charter schools, costs such as rent, facilities, maintenance, school lunches and transportation are covered by jail budgets, Five Keys can invest more in technology and the kind of intensive programs that its students need, including those involving remedial education, English as a second language, special education and mental health.

The biggest challenge Five Keys faces is low retention after inmates are released because many are homeless or return to remote areas. To address the problem, the San Francisco school is adding online classes and mobile-classroom sites on refurbished city buses.

Recidivism is one of many areas in which our criminal justice system desperately needs to improve. With its own charter schools, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department is using education to make real progress on this critical front.