This commentary, written by Greg Glod and Savannah Hostetter, originally appeared in The Monitor on December 21, 2015.
Growing up in a home filled with abuse and addiction, Jason Heffner started drinking alcohol at just 7 years old. After dropping out of high school, Jason quickly found himself at Texas’ Beto Prison Unit on felony drug possession, felony flight to avoid prosecutio, and conspiracy to commit capital murder against a public official.
To the average Texan, Jason may have seemed too far-gone to ever become a contributing member of society. However, Bridge to Life, a nonprofit prison ministry headquartered in Houston, helped to give him a second chance.
Today, Jason serves as a successful volunteer fireman. His story is only one of countless examples of those who have been helped through Texas prison ministries in our state’s criminal justice system. Across the state, privately funded, faith-based organizations are successfully restoring lives and reducing recidivism — saving taxpayer dollars, all while creating safer communities.
According to the Texas Legislative Budget Board, in 2011, 21.4 percent of offenders released from prison and 30.7 percent of offenders released from state jails were re-incarcerated within three years. While these rates have been reduced thanks to Texas’ 2008 reforms, prison ministries continuously report recidivism rates at a fraction of state averages.
In Richmond, for example, InnerChange Freedom prison ministry has shown for almost two decades that faith-based programs help keep our streets safer. A 2003 study by the Texas Policy Council found that only 8 percent of the program’s graduates returned to prison within two years — compared to 20 percent of inmates “who were eligible for the program but did not participate.”
More recently, in Bridge to Life’s 2011 program class, only 14 percent of the prison participants and 21.2 percent of the state jail participants were re-incarcerated within three years of their release. In the Restoration Outreach of Dallas prison ministry, none of the 2014 prison participants and only three out of 717 of the program’s Hutchins State Jail participants were re-incarcerated within one year.
With the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s budget amounting to $3.093 billion in 2013, faith-based programs indeed play a crucial role in not only saving today’s taxpayer’s dollar, but also safeguarding tomorrow’s funds.
On average, it costs Texas $90,155 to incarcerate an offender. On the contrary, some nonprofit organizations, like Kairos prison ministry in 40 Texas jails and prisons, effectively reduce recidivism at substantial costs.
In 2014, Bridge to Life spent just $210 per offender, thanks to the ministry’s 550 volunteers who serve “in-kind”— a savings value of $1.04 million.
Reducing recidivism helps offenders and everyone in our state. When men and women are placed behind bars, unable to work, the state loses potential tax revenue and victims lose out on restitution payments they are due. However, through ministry educational curriculums, offenders learn transformative life skills that give them a hand up, rather than simply a handout, to help provide for their families. Prison ministries provide one-on-one mentorship and family outreach programs that help to restore dignity, hope and opportunity, which are key components to reducing recidivism.
Prison ministries also give Texans the freedom to put their money toward organizations that share their values and beliefs.
For Jason Heffner, Bridge to Life’s curriculum instilled the value of personal responsibility that transformed his life: “[It] taught me for the first time that I was hurting people and didn’t have a right to do these things to people. . . . I thought I was the victim. I had to learn to face me,” he said.
Through their cost-effective, personalized programs, prison ministries continuously exemplify the difference being “smart on crime” makes in Texas’ fight for a better criminal justice system. May God continue to bless the invaluable work these organizations do.
Savannah Hostetter is an intern with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Greg Glod is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.