GUY RAZ, host:
Lee Baca is also a bit of a star, at least in the law enforcement community. He is the sheriff of Los Angeles County, and he oversees the largest county prison system in America. More than 160,000 inmates pass through his jails each year.
Now, for most of his career, Baca developed a reputation as a tough "Law & Order" kind of cop. But in recent years, he's had a slight change in his philosophy, and he's come to believe that the best way to keep criminals from returning to jail is by educating them.
So this year, he launched an initiative that he hopes will eventually offer a full education to each and every inmate who wants one.
Sheriff LEE BACA (Los Angeles County): What we're focusing on is intellectual growth in our system here and intellectual competence. That's the problem. And what I'm trying to say is that no one has focused on the idea of intellectual growth.
Most prisoners are high school dropouts. Most of them didn't finish academically sufficiently at the seventh grade or less. And ultimately, what we have is an adult with a child's mind of development. And what I'm trying to do is to have the adult become adult in their mind with all of the intellectual skills that one needs to survive these days.
RAZ: Now, I know it's still in the beta phase. You're still - you've just launched it, but you're working with several universities in the LA area. I mean, how does a prisoner become educated? What kinds of courses are offered to a prisoner, for example?
Sheriff BACA: Yes. The curriculum is very, very widespread. The traditional reading and writing is critical, along with math skills, typical academic subjects, such as history, astronomy, science, all the things that one typically - including literature - would look at to enrich their mind.
And then life skills are a very big part of this. A lot of the interesting coursework regarding leadership is amazingly effective with prisoners. They're very good students.
You know, not to make a joke here, but attendance is perfect in these classes. And ultimately, they're learning a different way of how to assess their time as they're serving time in jail.
RAZ: This sounds like - almost like a liberal arts education that you're offering prisoners.
Sheriff BACA: Most definitely it's a liberal arts education. And of course, our belief - and my belief is that you can incarcerate a body, but you should never incarcerate a brain. The brain must develop regardless of what the environment is.
RAZ: Why should taxpayers want to pay for these prisoners, these kinds of people to get these sorts of benefits?
Sheriff BACA: Our system is not involving taxpayer dollars to the extent of the education piece. We use Inmate Welfare Fund dollars that the inmates themselves generate. So it's not costing additional to educate these individuals other than what they pay for.
RAZ: Now, according to California's own Department of Corrections, your state has the highest recidivism rate in the country. Two out of every three inmates in California will return to jail.
Sheriff BACA: Yes.
RAZ: I'm assuming your hope is that this program will reduce that rate? What kind of evidence is there to support that?
Sheriff BACA: Well, common sense is the first form of evidence. And I believe that an evidence-based system is what this is with education. I believe that: One, the prisoners that end up in state prison will be coming from the county jail, and 34 percent of them are coming from my jail.
If I don't start the education, cultural shift in the local jail, the state is not going to be incentivized to carry on the education mandate that I've set locally.
Inevitably, these people are coming back out, and the emphasis the state of California has today is to unload their re-entry problem to the local jails. And I'm saying: Well, you can't prepare a person six months before they're released to function in a free society. You have to prepare them the minute they start the local jail incarceration, the state prison incarceration, and then they're prepared to come out better tooled-up, as they say, to live a positive, crime-free life.
RAZ: Given that most prisons in this country offer some kind of basic adult education, but all the evidence shows that just a fraction of inmates take advantage of these programs, why do you think this one will be different?
Sheriff BACA: Because I think the enthusiasm of the inmates in terms of how to spend their time in jail. If there's no intellectual growth, it's usually the weight room or the weight yard, as they say, pumping iron.
My belief is that when you challenge a person's judgment skills, intellectual skills and life skills, as well as their academic capacities, the time will go faster, it'll go easier, it'll go less threatening, because prisoners who are interested in learning do not create violence in our jails and are not interested in violating our rules.
And in fact, this education-based incarceration could be an incentive for people to further their knowledge and then further their reliability and perhaps even get a little reduction on their sentence if they do well academically.
RAZ: That's LA County Sheriff Lee Baca. He's talking about his education-based incarceration initiative. He joined me from his office in Los Angeles.
Sheriff, thanks so much.
Sheriff BACA: My pleasure, Guy.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.