Question: Other than serving time for a crime, what do most Massachusetts inmates have in common? Answer: about 94 percent are male; about 60 percent are not white; and about 66 percent have an 11th grade education or less.

What should we do with this information? We can't change someone's sex, or their race/ethnicity. Maybe we can do something about their education level.

Low levels of educational achievement are one of the best predictors of someone's quality of life. What is promising about this is that there is hope. What is depressing about this is that low levels of education are often generational.

I've recently had the pleasure of meeting Irving Fradkin, PhD, of Fall River, founder of Dollars for Scholars. Fradkin has been one of the nation's leading advocates for educating our youth.

He has a common sense approach to solving many of our social ills associated with crime.

"Our greatest resource isn't our military, nor is it our economy. Our greatest national resource is our youth." says Fradkin.

And when, nationally, over 2 million people are locked up in prison, with 10 percent of African Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics dropping out annually, we are limiting our nation's potential. The figures are over 6 percent and over 9 percent, respectively, in Massachusetts.

Not including police, jail, court fees and other associated costs of crime, we spend nearly $60 billion just on prison annually in the United States; over $500 million in Massachusetts.

Every weekend, patrons in the United States spend hundreds of millions of dollars on movie tickets. What if, from time to time, we citizens gave the price of a movie ticket to a scholarship fund for at-risk youth? Can you imagine how many scholarships we could fund?

Fradkin stresses that if a young person has hope that s/he will be able to afford to attend college, perhaps that will be one way to keep one more person out of prison.

You know that the federal government has to make spending cuts. But cuts always fall on city and state governments, and sooner than later cuts fall on our schools. When this happens, class sizes will get larger. The school year and school day may get shorter. Materials will grow old.

Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Can you imagine what is going to happen when our schools aren't producing graduates who can effectively provide citizens with the public services they need? When employers have difficulty hiring because high school graduates aren't able to perform basic functions on the job?

We have a crisis. It is easier to cut school budgets than the budgets of prisons. But schools and education provide more of an investment in our communities than do prisons.

What I am talking about here is a displaced sense of priorities. I worked in a state prison and a county jail. In both, correctional officers did not have guns; they have to de-escalate crises through other means. What does it say about our society when we have armed guards and armed police at many schools ?

Doing time in prison is a "part of life," a "right of passage" and "no big deal" for millions of young Americans; school isn't considered useful to the same group of people. Fradkin asks "how many people wouldn't go to prison if they stayed in school?" It is a good question.

Perhaps we should make it a priority at the local, state and national level to find out. It will require school and prison reforms.

Cutting the dropout rate in half won't cut the prison population in half, but it will help the economy, crime rates, and even the quality of life in our communities.

PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a contributing columnist. He previously worked for a state prison and a county jail, and can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.

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