I frequently write about the need to be smarter, rather than just tough on crime. That means funding prison programs that rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the chance of recidivism. Here’s a success story. On May 26, among those wearing a cap and gown to receive degrees at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs will be Alex Matheson. Matheson, a twice-convicted felon, has earned degrees in English and Philosophy. Now 26, Matheson’s first crime stint landed him in Colorado’s youth correctional facility. He escaped, and ended up at the Crowley Correctional Facility. He began studying at Crowley and continued once released into Community Corrections. In 2005, he became a full time student. Three years later, he’s graduating, sober, drug-free and with two degrees and a new lease on life. Matheson also works full-time as a tile installer. He’s almost finished with his parole, and recently married, will be moving to Washington state where his wife is. His plans?

Matheson hopes to earn a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Washington. He’d like to help prisoners re-integrate into society, because how it works now is “a joke.” Whatever happens, he said, “the future is looking good to me.”

The New York Times today examines ex-offender employment programs in Newark, N.J.

Even the most focused and well-financed efforts run uphill. Parolees with drug convictions do not qualify for federal tuition grants and outstanding traffic fines prevent many from obtaining the driver’s licenses that would give them access to jobs beyond the city’s public transportation system. And because child support payments and court fees accrue while they are behind bars, the paychecks of newly employed offenders are sometimes heavily garnisheed. Newark’s Nicholson Foundation, which has allocated $9 million for employment training and mentoring programs, runs a program called Opportunity Reconnect, in which parolees can apply for food stamps, housing assistance and mental health counseling in a student union-like setting at Essex Community College. “The last thing a returning ex-offender needs is to have to chase down a dozen different services to remedy their problems,” said Stefan Pryor, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development. “If we can produce a light at the end of the tunnel, more individuals will successfully navigate that tunnel.”

Rehabilitation works. When it does, the entire community, not just the offender, benefits.