"When we're cutting funding for public schools and furloughing thousands of school employees, they're going to have to convince us why they should receive any continued funding," Shapiro was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman.
Let the convincing commence.
On a pure dollars-and-sense level, the state loses money. Lester Meriwether, who serves on the Governor's Interagency Literacy Council and is past president of Literacy Texas, said a portion of the allocation to the Windham school district counts as part of the state match for federal dollars to the overall adult education program.
Not enough? How about the Justice Department report that says the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure. More than 70 percent of the inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Trust me when I say Texas is no exception to that statistic.
Penal institution records show that recidivism rates for those who receive no education while incarcerated are almost 75 percent. Compare that to the 16 to 25 percent rate for offenders who receive literacy and vocational assistance.
The inmates who today are choosing to take classes can learn skills that put them on a road to productivity when they are released, or they can learn from their fellow cons how not to get caught the next time they burglarize your house or steal your car. Which will it be, Texas?
Though we can't speak with certainty about recidivism, something TDCJ has tracked systematically are employment outcomes for Windham graduates, and there the program can point to legitimately positive results. From the LBB report (p. 22)
- In the Prison and State Jail Group, 49% of the Windham vocational completers and 52.3% of the college vocational completers were employed within one year of release compared to 36.7% of the offenders who did not receive vocational training.
- In comparison to the 2009 study, some slippage is indicated with respect to the percentage employed. For example, for the Prison and State Jail Group, the percentage of employed offenders in the Windham vocational completion group decreased from 59% in 2009 to 49% in 2010. The percentage of employed offenders in the College vocational completion group decreased from 67.8% in 2009 to 52.3% in 2010. However, since the percentage of employed offenders in the non-vocational group also decreased (from 46.8% to 36.7%), it is believed that the slippage may be a reflection of the current economic conditions and record high unemployment rates throughout the country.
- In the Prison and State Jail Group, 76.6% of the Windham vocational completers and 75.5% of the college vocational completers who were employed earned income working in an occupation related to their vocational training.
Further, those who complete vocational training in prison, LBB found, tend to have higher salaries upon release, according to a study of prisoners who exited state custody in 2008. Those who completed Windham programs averaged $9,384 per year in wages compared to $8,128 for those who did not participate. Another notable finding: Most offenders who enter vocational programming complete it, but those who drop out while in prison are at especially high risk of failing to find a job when they get out. Prisoners who enter vocational ed but fail to complete it have lower employment rates, even, than those who never participated in any programming at all. And they make less money: On average, just $7,698 per year. (Think about how difficult it would be to live on even the higher of those amounts, btw.)
If and when recidivism studies are conducted, to the extent unemployment is a major risk factor for recidivism, it's possible vocational programming may be as or more effective than drug treatment at reducing future crime: Right now we just don't have the data to tell. But since the two most important risk factors preventing reentry success are difficulty finding employment and drug use, to the extent vocational ed helps overcome the first of those barriers, it's likely reducing recidivism even if the studies haven't been done yet to calculate how much.
Bottom line: It might be possible with more information to make strategic cuts at Windham, but the lack of program-specific recidivism data prevents using a scalpel to carve out less successful programs while protecting the ones that work. If the Lege wants to slash Windham's budget without that data, their only option is to hack away at the topline number, inevitably harming programs that reduce crime in addition to those that aren't working well. As Grits opined when cuts at Windham were first proposed, "The prison system needs anti-recidivism programming and it also needs resources for evaluating how well it works so it can be adjusted and improved over time. I'm all for targeting ineffective programs for cuts and shifting resources to programming that empirically works." For now, though, Texas hasn't sufficiently invested in evaluating Windham programming (or new treatment and diversion programming, for that matter), so inevitably cuts will be made with all the subtlety of a blind man swinging a machete - there's just not enough information for them to reliably do otherwise.
UPDATE: from the Austin Statesman, "Senate cuts $34 million from prison schools."