RALEIGH – Prison reform is, admittedly, not the most exciting or appealing of topics. But it’s important.

For one thing, protecting citizens from criminals is the first and foremost responsibility of any government. Without law and order, civilization is impossible and individual rights are never secure (or so insisted some bloke named John Locke).

For another thing, North Carolina taxpayers are currently being compelled to spend some $1.5 billion on a state prison, parole, and juvenile justice system that isn’t delivering good value for the money. It spends too little tracking and incapacitating dangerous thugs, too many of whom have injured or killed North Carolinians while on probation or parole for other crimes. And it spends too much “punishing” addicts, mental patients, and deadbeat dads.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers to these vexing problems, and that no one else does, either. But I do believe there are some promising places to start.

One of them is in Rockville, Maryland. In its August edition, Governing magazine profiled the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, where convicts go to secure gainful employment before gaining privileges and, eventually, release. All prison systems have halfway houses, training programs, and job-search offices. What makes the Montgomery County facility different isn’t its budget, physical plant, or personnel. It’s the philosophy, which borrows liberally from the thinking behind the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s.

Success begins with a convict finding a job, says Stefan LoBuglio, the head of the center. There is no substitute for it, or excuses for failing to accomplish it. From the Governing piece:

LoBuglio rejects the philosophy of many prisoner reentry program – that those released need substantial training. “The lament in corrections,” he says, “is that there are too many barriers, they are struggling with too many demons. Sometimes in the field of reentry, we aim for these huge policy solutions, like let’s expunge criminal records or remove the ability of employers to ask about past criminal history. We talk about these huge job training and industry apprenticeship programs.” At PRC, the philosophy is entirely different, and very simple: Get a job. Any job that pays. If anger management or substance abuse prevents someone from finding employment, then it needs to be addressed, too – but the job comes first.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the approach PRC has developed under LoBuglio over the past four years resembles one that has been used successfully in many places to deal with welfare recipients leaving the world of public assistance. Teaching participants new skills is not his focus. Instilling the basic habits of employment and responsibility is.

By most accounts, it’s been remarkably effective. More than 85 percent of PRC “residents” (the name used for its inmates) exit the program with jobs and, for the first time in the lives of many, with savings. (The PRC withholds 10 percent of wages as savings, payable upon completion of the program; it also withholds 20 percent of gross wages to offset program costs and requires participants to make child support and restitution payments.) Even during the current economic downturn, most have managed to find a job within a month’s time. The numbers PRC is turning in have forced policy makers and corrections officials around the country to reassess the conventional wisdom about prisoner reentry.

Advocates of this philosophy don’t deny the effects of substance abuse, mental illness, laziness, brutality, and dysfunctional culture on the lives and prospects of those in the prison system. But we’ve been talking about these debilitating cycles for decades, all too often allowing a nature desire to understand and empathize to become a barrier to effective action. At some point, you just have to stop talking and start doing.

That applies, first and foremost, to the criminals themselves. Until they obtain gainful employment, and are capable of paying at least some of their own way in the world with hard, honest labor, it’s difficult to see how they can move forward to surmount the many other obstacles they face.

Do any of North Carolina’s correctional institutions follow a similar philosophy? If not, let’s copy it. If so, let’s expand it.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation