Work Ethic Camp can save money

Friday, April 2, 2004

Every year, it seems, the Work Ethic Camp in McCook has to prove itself to a pocket of doubting senators in the Nebraska Legislature.

The first assault was launched in 2003 when Harold Clarke, the director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, placed the camp on the chopping block as a way of complying with Gov. Mike Johanns' budget-cutting orders.

Thanks to an outstanding community-wide campaign, the Work Camp survived the shutdown attempt. Due to the vigorous lobbying efforts of the McCook coalition, two committee members changed their votes and the camp went forward with $3.5 million in annual funding.

Before and since that time, the Work Ethic Camp has risen to the challenge of helping first-time offenders turn their lives around. By focusing upon discipline, drug education and better work habits, the camp is helping turn the offenders away from a life or crime, and towards a peaceful and productive role in society.

"Since December, we've been between 90 percent and 100 percent of capacity," says Raleigh Haas, the superintendent of the Work Ethic Camp. And, the encouraging thing is, the camp appears to be having a positive effect on offenders' lives.

Despite that, State Sen. John Synowiecki of Omaha keeps trying to shut the camp's doors. Saying money should be put into probation instead of the work camp, Synowiecki put forth a bill in this year's legislative session to close the camp. His attempt proved futile, however, as Synowiecki's bill was defeated, with 16 senators voting for closure, 22 voting against it, and the remaining 14 senators not casting votes.

Will the closure question come up again? Probably not this year, but possibly in future legislative sessions. But, even so, Superintendent Haas is not worried. "We have a good program and it's working," he said. It's also a much more economical approach that the penitentiary. Costs per offender at the Work Ethic Camp averaged $14,871 in 2003, compared to an annual cost of $26,662 in the penitentiary. And the costs for the Work Ethic Camp will be going even lower on a per offender basis. With the offender count now staying close to the camp's 100-bed capacity, Haas says the cost per offender could fall below $10,000 this year.

Yes, there is still a price tag. But -- if the Work Ethic Camp can change the lives of criminal offenders, as it appears it can -- the long-term savings to the state will be immense and on-going.

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