Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rebutting the Austin Statesman on cutting vocational ed for prisoners

The Austin Statesman today editorialized against providing post-secondary vocational courses to Texas prison inmates, and made this flawed argument (rebutted over the last few days in the comments to this Grits post):
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.

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?"
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 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:


Anonymous said...

Maintaining full time employment during the first year of release from prison in Texas reduces the re-offending rate by 68%.... so says a analysis by a UT doctoral students research 5 or so years ago.

Or just look at the success of the PEP program. The positive impact it is having on recidivism due to education while in prison coupled with the post release accountability and coaching up.

Close a prison and put the money where it will keep our communities safer.

sunray's wench said...

If an inmate who has been educated while in TDCJ is released on parole, are the fees for education included in the parole fees? If not, how are they collected? Is there a penalty for not paying the education fees, in the same way that those who do not pay parole fees are revocated?

We haven't got to that stage with TDCJ yet, so I'd be interested to know.

If the fees are not included in the parole fees and there is no penalty for not paying the education fees, then any parolee that finds a job is obviously going to be paying the parole fees before they even try to pay their education off.

Anonymous said...

Dude, if the liberal American-Statesman has found an expenditure of taxpayer money that it finds frivolous, then that, in and of itself, is NEWS!!! I'm shocked--SHOCKED--that the daily paper from the People's Republic of Travis County could ever find it in its heart to advocate austerity! This vocational ed program for inmates must REALLY be a joke! :-)

rodsmith said...

a couple of other big questions from this statement!

"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."

that says 6630 have made FULL repayment.

Ok how many of the remainer have at least made partial payment and how many have made no effort at all.

Next big question would be of the 16,000 or so who have NOT made full payment.

How many have not had a job or study employmnent since leaving prison.

Kinda hard to made a payment if you ain't got no MONEY!

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Well Rodsmith you have to understand that the reason all this vocational money is a waste is because noone plans on ex- offenders getting a job anyway. Despite the services provided by re-entry agencies some really quality services and JRT training, many ex-offenders are finding it nearly impossible to find work as welders and in AC shops and all the other places that hire people who do the jobs that vocational rehab trains them for. There is no vocational rehab training for Whataburger counter help.

We need to be able to provide the Vocational Training, of course we do. AND We need to provide some quality incentives, assurances, and insurances to employers so that hiring ex-offenders is not so daunting. Employment developers are pulling their hair out ( when they have some) trying to find felony friendly employers to employ the growing number of people who are stretching the resources of Re Entry agencies to the bursting point.

Texas Maverick said...

Did anyone estimate how many inmates taking college classes are still inside? or the $$ still to pay back if or when they are paroled (assuming they do not have to do flat time) I don't think the $$ are being accurately accounted for.

Texannna said...

Actually there is an error in this article.There ARE offenders taking academic college classes and getting academic degrees while inacarcerated. While many more do the vocational college progams, ther are also academic programs. Offenders do take Enlish lit, math, sociology, philosphy, etc. Some actaully get master level degrees while inside. The reimbursement for the upper level programs is extremely limited but offenders can use the same reimbursement programs fund they use for vocational for the academic classes at those same schools if they qualify. They can only take 1 academic class per semester though.

I have also known of offenders that use this program that are NOT scheduled for release within 7 years. They are going to be reviewed for release within 7 years but are not always going to be released withn that time frame. They just have a minimum and a maximum date that are not the same. If the minimum date is less than the maximu, they can use this program if they otherwise qualify.

How do I know all this? Well I work for Windham on a unit and I screen our offenders who ask for the college programs for this program's eligibility.