Texas needs to be smart about prison funding

Faith-based programs are having a positive impact in Texas prisons, and the leaders of one such program have written a helpful opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle.

David Ludwick listens to a lecture about the virtues of being godly during his seminary class in the Darrington Unit in Rosharon. (Houston Chronicle photo)

Texas Baptists are highly involved in faith-based efforts, with funds provided through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program and the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions. Our efforts seek to have a life-changing impact on inmates and their families, but we also seek to make sure these efforts are pursued in a manner that respects the important principle of separation of church and state.

The Chronicle piece by Kirk Blackard and John Sage gives the staggering numbers regarding incarceration in the United States and Texas, but it goes further. It speaks of the inroads into recidivism rates in Texas and how this is tied to state funding.

“Nationwide, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and about half are locked up again,” Blacker and Sage said. In Texas, about half of inmates will be rearrested in three years and 28 percent of those will be re-incarcerated.

Those numbers are inexact, but they show Texas is doing something right in its prisons; we are doing better than most of the rest of the nation.

“This record is driven by a number of factors, not least of which is in-prison programming that prepares inmates for re-entry into free society,” the Chronicle article says. “This includes programs such as substance abuse treatment; the Windham School District that provides academic and vocational education to offenders; the expanding use of faith-based dorms that emphasize accountability, responsibility and moral rehabilitation in all aspects of life; and the recently established seminary at Texas’ Darrington Unit that is designed to train inmates for service to other inmates throughout the system.”

This is good news for the prisoners; it is also good news for Texas taxpayers because it costs a lot of money to put criminals in prison.

The economics of this can be lost in the state budgeting process. During the last session of the Texas Legislature in 2011, the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission helped turn back an effort to cut all chaplains from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice budget. The proposed cut in chaplains came from TDCJ itself. Fortunately, the Legislature had more wisdom than TDCJ, because once the situation was made clear to them, funding for chaplains was restored.

State funding, of course, is a continual issue. Blackard and Sage said:

“Unfortunately, the state’sbudget woes are leading to major cuts in the very programs that help reduce recidivism, suffering and cost. Budget reductions in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have been largely focused on community supervision, parole and programming funds. Even the department’s ability to process new volunteers for work in prison programs has been impaired. It appears the goose that could lay the golden egg is being killed by short-sighted legislative policy.

“There is a better way. Some people need to be locked up to protect society – and many for a very long time. But the tendency of tough-on-crime advocates to lock up more and more people for longer and longer terms for smaller and smaller offenses, while de-emphasizing the programs aiming to rehabilitate inmates and prevent their return to prison, is misguided at best.

“As responsible citizens, we all need to demand that our elected representatives take a more rational approach to incarcerating offenders, while retaining or expanding in-prison programming as a humane, recidivism reducing, cost cutting – and presumably tax saving – measure. Required budget cuts should focus on creating a policy that aims to provide community supervision of offenders who are not a threat to society, incarcerate those who are and rehabilitate them all. And each of us should do our part by participating in or supporting nonprofit programs, such as Bridges To Life, that help restore offenders to the life of a productive, tax-paying citizen.”

Sage is the founder and executive director of Bridges To Life, a faith-based restorative justice program headquartered in Houston; Blackard is chairman of the Board. They are part of a broad-based effort for Texas to be smarter in how we deal with crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. The latter, indeed, is possible. We Christians, with our belief that transformation of sinners is indeed possible, should be and are leading in this effort.

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