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Addressing dyslexia is key to reducing criminal recidivism


The Senate passed the criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, Tuesday. The bill is patterned after similar, successful state efforts in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere. These reforms have made society safer by reducing criminal recidivism amongst recently released inmates. We believe that the Senate version, by addressing illiteracy and its common cause, dyslexia, will add to our understanding of how to help recently released inmates live socially productive, positive lives.

Before entering the Senate, one of us, Bill, ran hepatitis clinics inside the largest maximum-security prison in the nation, Louisiana State Penitentiary, and two other Louisiana prisons. The percent of patients who were illiterate in these prisons was far greater than among the patients Bill treated in a public hospital which had a similar demographic as the prison population. This is consistent with studies showing that illiteracy and hopelessness make individuals more likely to lead a criminal lifestyle.

{mosads}Dyslexia is the most common cause of illiteracy. Dyslexia is defined as an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader. As much as 20 percent of people are dyslexic. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, but if it is addressed at an early age, dyslexics can have an academic career similar to non-dyslexics. If it is not addressed, dyslexics may never learn to read, or may only read poorly.

Even at a later age, dyslexia can be recognized and mitigated. This builds self-esteem, and for individuals who receive accommodations like text-to-speech and additional test taking time, accommodations make it more likely they will pass their GED.

A 2000 study in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found 48 percent of inmates were dyslexic. To see if dyslexia is also common in other prisons, one of us, Laura, recently screened and tested inmates for dyslexia in two of the three prisons in which Bill previously worked. Inmates were randomly selected, screened, and evaluated. More than half are thought to be dyslexic, and very few had obtained a GED or high school diploma especially when compared to non-dyslexic inmates.

Given that illiteracy is a risk factor for criminal behavior, that dyslexia is overwhelmingly the most common cause of illiteracy, and that a high percent of inmates in two different prison systems in two states were found to have dyslexia, it makes sense that dyslexia should be addressed in any criminal justice reform legislation.

While identifying dyslexia in kindergarten or first grade so that science-based interventions can empower children to read to learn, identifying dyslexia in people in prison is still important. Many prison systems require prisoners to obtain a GED or enroll in education programs to be eligible for early release. If someone has dyslexia, specific reading instruction and the availability of audio material with extended time is essential to complete these requirements.

The First Step Act passed by the Senate would implement a program to screen inmates for dyslexia so that, with the help of knowledgeable professionals and audio technology, incarcerated individuals could obtain their GED, get a job once released, and become productive members of society. In addition to the other good reforms in the bill, this is an additional reason to support the First Step Act.

Dr. Laura Cassidy is a retired surgeon and the cofounder and chair of Louisiana Key Academy and the Dyslexia Resource Center. Dr. Bill Cassidy is a gastroenterologist, the senior U.S. senator from Louisiana and sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. They live in Baton Rouge and have three children.

Tags Bill Cassidy

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