Jail or College?

Congressman Paul Ryan and his conservative colleagues want to reduce government spending on “entitlement” programs and curb the cost and impact of government in general. But I believe that with courage and vision, we could achieve this goal without furthering impoverishing the nation if people like Mr. Ryan, who professes concern for growing poverty if not the poor, understand the fundamental connection between the desperation of poverty, hunger, joblessness, and crime.

While incarceration is a growing and profitable business in America for the private prison industry – and a Pennsylvania judge is serving a 30-year sentence himself for accepting bribes from private prison officials to sentence juveniles to extended prison sentences – it’s a devastating budget burden for all state and local governments.

Vermont Dept. of Corrections confines some 150 women in a South Burlington prison designed for about 100 inmates – at a cost to Vermont taxpayers of $80,000 per woman per year. In comparison, the average annual public college tuition in Vermont is approaching $14,000 – a statistic to think about if we want to reduce government spending.

I propose that we create a college entrance review committee of corrections, education, and social work professionals to review college applications from women in South Burlington. I’d start here since this facility costs about 35% more than the male facilities and women often have dependent children and are generally behind bars for less violent crimes, usually derivative of addiction or poverty. Admission criteria would include behavior record, current health and age, drug and alcohol abstinence, and placement testing. Inmates accepted to college would agree to be monitored weekly for drug use and would return to jail if they failed even once.

If the chosen public college partner, say CCVT, Burlington College, or any of the publics, were to charge their top rate of $15K a year, a personal mentor were paid another $10K, the college parolee were paid a $20,000 annual living stipend equivalent to the recommended increase in minimum wage to $10 per hour, and additional administration costs for drug testing and the like were $5,000, the total would be $50,000. Vermont taxpayers would save several million dollars annually, would reduce future recidivism costs, and would be returning some of its citizens and their children to productive lives. If the success rate were only 20%, that would still be a win over what we do now. Many of the children of these incarcerated mothers become the fodder for our next generation of social and correctional services.

We’ll have to bear the increasing cost of incarceration as long as we keep believing in the myths of deterrence and atonement and elect legislators who sustain them. Our goal should be to return offenders as rapidly, safely, and inexpensively to a productive role in their families and in society.

Current policies only ensure a steady stream of offenders and when old ideas fail we must try new ones. With 2.2M prisoners in the US, the national savings could be astronomical.



One Response to “Jail or College?”

Superb commentary on replacing prison with college, Bill! One of those things that’s a no-brainer–once you think of it.
It’s unfortunate that some powerful sectors (including illicit ones as well as no doubt some law enforcement) have so much to gain from the prison system. Not to mention the cultural and political inertia that makes change for the better an uphill battle.
Anyway, the commentary is inspiring. Thanks.
–Rip Keller from South Walden & Chile