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N.C. Opinions: Winston-Salem

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A win-win: Inmates working on public projects

From an editorial in Tuesday’s (Winston-Salem) Journal:

Prison inmates owe a debt to society, but it’s hard to see how they repay that debt idling their time away in a state institution, burning up taxpayer funds.

For years, North Carolina made good use of idle inmate time. The state put inmates to work on community projects, maybe painting a courthouse or clearing storm damage.

Then the program stopped a few years back. In the tight budget years following the recession, lawmakers cut it. First they saved $4.8 million in 2009, then, after resuscitating a smaller program a year later, cut it again in 2011, this time saving $1.6 million.

With state revenues rebounding, and the economy showing signs of revival, some legislators want to bring the program back. They should. And local governments that will benefit from some of the work the inmates do should chip in for part of the cost.

The crews cost $230 a day to run. For that, the state puts eight to 10 laborers on the job, supervised by a guard. That’s less than $30 for a laborer’s full day of work, and it is a bargain.

At a meeting of the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee, legislators raised the possibility of marketing the program to local governments. They want to know if towns and counties would pay maybe $150 a day to offset state costs.

Many communities have projects they would love to undertake but which they cannot afford to pursue. This is where this program can be a winning effort for all. The communities get the work done for a small cost while inmates get out in the fresh air for a day, get some exercise and, we hope, learn something positive about an honest day’s work by making some canteen money.

It is essential that programs such as this do not compete with the labor available in a community. That’s why renting crews to private companies should not be allowed.

Legislators say they are looking for ways to run government more efficiently. With this program, they have a chance to do so.

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