Just last week, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed their anxiously awaited budget for FY 2010-11. As many had expected, the content of this year’s budget mirrored the tribulations of North Carolina’s economy, as many critical programs suffered sizeable budget cuts to reconcile the state’s $1 billion budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Among the many programs targeted for large budget cuts was Public Education ($282 million). In the midst of many vital and effective programs tightening their belts, however, a striking inconsistency appeared as the House budget included a $25.5 million appropriation for Prisoner Education at Community Colleges.
The Prisoner Education Program (PEP) has been around for over thirty years and has recently come under the scrutiny of state lawmakers scrambling to raise money to combat impending budget shortfalls. Funding amounting to $33 million was appropriated to the PEP in FY 2009-10 on a non-recurring basis, with funding for FY 2010-11 contingent on the results of a study of the program’s effectiveness, which was completed earlier this year. The House’s proposed $25.5 million expenditure would reflect some minor changes recommended by the study.
In past years, PEP has educated inmates in a variety of courses offered by Community Colleges at taxpayers’ expense. Courses were offered to jails, state prisons, and even two federal prisons. Defenders of the program claim that such education aids the reintegration efforts of prisoners back into society and reduces their chances of returning to prison. A little extra spending on education now, they say, will be offset by savings in the future as fewer prisoners return to be housed in correctional facilities.
Indeed, many of the courses offered, such as carpentry and horticulture, could potentially be of benefit to a prisoner seeking a job upon release. However, classes offered such as music, art, and even manicuring seem to be less appropriate for a prison setting. These are people who have committed crimes great enough to be removed from society and now that same society is paying for them to be educated, on top of other living expenses. The PEP survived the evaluation by the General Assembly for its funding for the coming fiscal year, but fortunately it did not receive the entire $36 million it requested for FY 2010-11. Additionally, the General Assembly made many stipulations as to the use of the funds to mitigate the potential for wastefulness, such as prohibiting funds to be used on federal prisons and banning courses not pertaining to job skills training.
While the House placed many caveats on how PEP funding is to be spent, it did not go far enough in reigning in this ineffective program because the root of the problem was not addressed. After cleaning out all of the obviously frivolous components of the PEP, the naked truth is that many of the basic education courses are not shown to significantly reduce recidivism. Furthermore, even with effective courses it is often the case that the slightly lower amount of recidivism does not offset the increased costs of educating a prisoner. One prisoner costs the state of North Carolina an average of $27,000 per year and $5,000 more for education. It is initially difficult, however, to determine PEP’s effectiveness in reducing recidivism because the academic study used to justify prisoner education was not even conducted in North Carolina. This troublesome lack of information of the program’s effectiveness in our own state is only exacerbated by the fact that the study does not produce very convincing numbers. Prisoners who completed courses in Adult Basic Education, Business Technologies, and ten additional courses this study evaluated, for example, did not show any statistically significant reductions in recidivism than uneducated inmates. A few programs showed minor reductions in recidivism and fewer still showed substantial reductions.
North Carolinians need to understand where their money is and isn’t being used and recognize the perverse priorities that fund a largely ineffective and expensive program while other more critical programs are being cut. Allow the private sector to aid in prisoner reintegration initiatives, keep government out of funding programs that do not work, and keep our scarce tax revenues funding programs like Public Education that provide the most essential services to North Carolina.
When there exists the possibility of having to furlough and layoff Public School teachers, who educate North Carolina’s youth, there should be no money to spare for educating criminals who have violated the laws of our society. Prisoner Education should not be a priority in this year’s budget.