No money for tech schools but lots for Columbus Day

While state legislators and students freaked out last week over musing by the State Board of Education that budget cuts might require the closing of two vocational-technical schools, Connecticut's state and municipal employees were preparing to enjoy a long holiday weekend that private-sector workers would not notice unless they tried to obtain some government service and found offices closed.

The holiday is Columbus Day, one of six minor but official legal holidays Connecticut confers with pay on government employees. (The others are Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln's Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Good Friday, and Veterans Day.) On the state government side these holidays cost taxpayers about $40 million per year. The cost on the municipal side is millions more. But even as vo-tech schools are on the chopping block, along with basic services to the most innocent needy, the gratuitous paid holidays for state and municipal government employees remain sacred cows, since the highest principle of government in Connecticut is only subservience to the government employee unions.

Even so, how much of a loss would two vo-tech schools really be when standardized tests show that half of Connecticut's high school seniors never master high school English and two-thirds never master high school math but are given diplomas anyway, and when even the head of the school superintendents association and the Superior Court judge handling the latest school financing lawsuit acknowledge that public education here is entirely social promotion?

Despite the constant state budget deficits, government in Connecticut is actually rolling in money. What has run out is only the political courage to redirect the money to where it is most needed.

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'RISK REDUCTION' MISSES POINT: A new case of a parolee who used the Correction Department's "risk reduction" program to earn time off his sentence and was soon charged with robbery and rape has revived controversy about the program.

The program has had its flaws but controversy about it is a distraction from the bigger issue of criminal justice. For the parolees who have used the program to reduce their sentences only to return to crime probably would have returned to crime anyway, just a little later. That's because most offenders are not rehabilitated in prison and two-thirds or more are arrested again within two years of their release. Many more return to crime as well but are not caught.

Of course the inevitability of the return to crime is no consolation to the victims of parolees who used the "risk reduction" program, but it should change the discussion. That discussion should begin with an observation made by the state budget official, former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, whom Governor Malloy has put in charge of the administration's criminal-justice policy.

That is, Lawlor notes, for most people any substantial prison sentence will ruin what is left of their lives. It will demoralize them, alienate them from decent society, make them unemployable except for menial work, and incline them to do more bad things.

Some corollaries may be drawn from this: that any substantial prison sentence should be a life sentence and that criminalizing drug use isn't worth the expense, since drug criminalization causes violence and theft in pursuit of illegal drugs and creates a cycle of crime when offenders are released from prison.

Elected officials are increasingly schizophrenic about crime, wanting to be tough on it when they see the damage to crime victims, then wanting to be soft on it, as with the governor's "Second-Chance Society" initiatives, when they see the damage the criminal-justice system does to offenders who have been released.

The policy implications here are a "three-strikes" law -- life sentences for repeat felony offenders, of whom Connecticut has thousands -- and the decriminalization and medicalization of the drug problem.

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Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.