So far, the state has spent $26.9 million on the program, which is based on the proven notion that recidivism rates can be lowered if inmates leave prison with more education than they had when they arrived.Several things are wrong with this pronouncement. For starters, comparing post-secondary vocational classes available to prisoners to "higher education" of the type received at colleges is disingenuous. There aren't any prisoners taking English lit, philosophy, sociology, women's studies, etc.. The cuts under discussion are to vocational programs which, though recidivism studies have never been done, have proven successful at boosting employment rates after release for those who participate in them.
The cost of the program was to have been borne by the inmates in it. After being released from prison, they are supposed to repay the state for the college-level and vocational courses they took while incarcerated.
Predictably, the repayment rate has been less than adequate. The American-Statesman's Mike Ward reported this week that only 6,630 of the 22,000 former convicts who took the courses have made full repayment. Overall, the state has received only $4.7 million in reimbursements.
And that means criminals are getting a taxpayer-funded higher education deal unavailable to folks who aren't criminals.
A case to shut this program down could be made even if we were not in a budget crunch of epic proportions. We're with House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who noted, "We don't provide free college tuition for anyone else like this, so with the budget crisis we're facing, why should we for convicted felons?"
The Statesman editorial overlooks incarceration cost while drawing these false parallels between in-prison vocational training and traditional higher ed, ignoring the long-term costs of recidivism. Texas releases some 72,000+ convicted felons per year from prison, so the cost to taxpayers is much greater if, when they leave, they're unprepared, fail, and end up back in lockup instead of successfully reentering society. Prisoners receiving post-secondary vocational training are 1.6 times more likely to be employed one year after leaving prison than those who receive none. Given that unemployment is a pivotal predictor of recidivism, future incarceration for these offenders (in the near term, within three years of release) would cost substantially more than fronting costs for vocational programs today. If legislators cut vocational ed, drug treatment and other prison programming, taxpayers pay more overall because of higher recidivism. That's not speculation, it's exactly what happened last time vocational programs at Windham were slashed.
Even more flawed is the economic analysis presented by the newspaper about inmate repayment rates. According to the Mike Ward's reporting, the program is only ten years old and inmates can't participate until they have 7 years or less to go. That means many participants are still incarcerated and have had no chance yet to pay. So for 30% to have paid in full is really quite extraordinary. And presumably others have paid some but just not yet "in full," just like many people have outstanding student loans.
So in context, that's a relatively high rate. And of course since repayment happens through parole fees, there's arguably a stronger mechanism for securing repayment than there is for student loans. How many people have paid off their student loans in full two or three years after leaving school? If students in or out of prison could afford to pay up front, they wouldn't need to borrow or in inmates' case pay in installments after the fact.
Finally, and this is really my biggest complaint about the whole debate, legislative leaders are still talking about teeny-tiny numbers compared to the hundreds of millions in cuts needed at TDCJ, another instance of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Cutting programming that costs $4.4 million per biennium but that increases post-release employment rates and reduces recidivism is a meaningless, even counterproductive gesture when the Governor and budgetmakers in the House have demanded $786 million in cuts from TDCJ in the next biennium. To get there, they must reduce the number of inmates and expand community supervision programs, or else risk having to lease private beds for up to 12,857 extra inmates by 2013, which would cost an additional $200 million per year, give or take. So making a big deal out of a $2.2 million cut is really just a distraction. Nobody at the Legislature is talking yet publicly about real budget solutions, in corrections or for the most part anywhere else, and it's getting pretty late in the game.
See related Grits posts:
- Vocational ed boosts ex-offender employment: The counterargument to cuts at Windham School District
- Cuts to vocational ed for prisoners will increase recidivism, near-term incarceration costs
- Waste alleged, budget cuts sought at TDCJ's Windham School District