Courts & Corrections

JFO study shows high per-student cost for Corrections’ high school program

A new report from the Joint Fiscal Office reveals a startlingly high per-pupil cost of educating those in Department of Corrections custody, due, in part, to a precipitous decline in students.

Offenders without high school diplomas can obtain them through the Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT). The education program operates in 17 locations around the state — eight in correctional facilities and nine in community settings in Barre, Bennington, Burlington, Brattleboro, Newport, Rutland, Springfield, St. Albans and St. Johnsbury.

The per-student cost for the community-based programs is $56,186. In correctional facilities, CHSVT operates at a per-student cost of $29,626 for vocational programs and $22,147 for academic programs. If the CHSVT programs were operating at full capacity, the average cost per student would be about $11,000.

The report concludes that CHSVT is “operating well below capacity,” which has driven up per-student costs.

State law mandates that inmates under the age 23 who do not have high school diplomas enroll in CHSVT; for other inmates, participation is optional. The number of diplomas and GED certificates CHSVT has distributed has declined by about 50 percent in the last five years — from 160 in Fiscal Year 2008 to 84 in FY 2012.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. Photo by Josh Larkin
Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. Photo by Josh Larkin

Although nearly 4,000 students came into CHSVT programs at some point during FY 2012, the total number of full-time equivalent students was fewer than 200 in FY 2012. There were only about 32 full-time equivalent students in community-based programs. The academic and vocational programs in correctional facilities had about 140 full-time students.

This trend mirrors the declining number of people in DOC custody who are age 21 or younger. This figure has decreased from 1,425 in 2008 to 938 in 2012.

Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said his department has been monitoring the trend for several years. “That is good news but has created some complications for our high school,” Pallito said.

In response to rising costs, the DOC announced on Jan. 7 that it will consolidate CHSVT with Vermont Correctional Industries, its inmate employment program, beginning in Fy 2014.

The move will save $600,000 in FY 2014, primarily from eliminating staff positions. The total request for the high school program for FY 2014 is $4.3 million, down from $4.7 million in FY 2012. CHSVT is financed through the Education Fund.

CHSVT programs will no longer be offered to community members who are not in the DOC custody starting in F”Y 2014. In FY 2012, there were 64 nonoffencers in CHSVT community programs.

Pallito said he expects the DOC will have to take additional steps down the road to “migrate the CHSVT to a more cost-effective model.”

The JFO report notes that it is misleading to compare DOC per-pupil costs with those of the state’s more traditional public schools for a number of reasons.

• CHSVT figures do not include costs related to facility maintenance, transportation, cafeterias, athletic programs, or capital bonding.

• CHSVT operated for 230 days per year, whereas local high schools operate for 175.

• Most students enrolled in CHSVT have special needs, though generally not severe enough to qualify them for an Individualized Education Program.

The report puts forth two intuitive recommendations for reining in costs — increase the number of participants or reduce expenses. The third recommendation is more radical — it proposes an overhaul of the program, which could focus more on GED and vocational certificates rather than high school diplomas. Vermont’s correctional education program is a rarity nationwide in that it centers upon obtaining a diplomas rather than a certificate.

But Pallito said the DOC needs to intensify, not scale back, education and training services for offenders, and issuing more GED certificates is not the answer. It also has to balance cost-cutting with working towards the “ fairly aggressive recidivism target set by the Legislature,” Pallito said. The current recidivism rate is 42 percent; the Legislature wants it to be no higher than 30 percent by 2017.

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Alicia Freese

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  • Christian Noll

    If Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office were serious about reducing the cost or annual budget for the Vermont Department of Corrections, they’d conduct a study on the root causes of Vermont’s high Correctional Officer turnover rate, and then address it.

    Vermont’s attrition rate for its correctional officers is not only the highest in the state, but far exceeds that of the second highest turnover rate by the hundreds of positions each year. This has been this way for decades and has yet to be addressed.

    It not that “tough” a job.