Mo., N.C., Ariz. Win Top Innovation Awards

Sweeping the honors for this year's Innovations in American Government Awards are Missouri, for its successful approach to rehabilitating juvenile offenders; North Carolina, for its ambitious college preparation program for disadvantaged kids; and Arizona, for its one-of-a-kind prisoner re-entry system.

The awards, which highlight successful programs with the hope of replicating them elsewhere, are given by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation of Harvard University 's John F. Kennedy School of Government. New York City and two federal agencies also took prizes, which include a $100,000 cash grant each to cover the costs of spreading the word about their programs. This year's winners were chosen from more than 1,000 applicants.

States are uniquely positioned to generate and spread innovative practices nationwide, said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who delivered the keynote address at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., last night (Sept. 9). "As laboratories of democracy, we can really test what works best and encourage other states to emulate these award winners."

Since the awards program was created in 1986, states have won 69 prizes, and many award-winning programs have been widely adopted in other places.

For example, Illinois' groundbreaking 311 hotline, a 1994 award winner, is widely used by cities, states and counties across the country to bring programs for the elderly, garbage collection schedules and other vital government information to citizens through one easy-to-remember phone number.

One of this year's winners - Missouri's Division of Youth Services - already has imitators. Started in the early 1980s, the intensive counseling program has resulted in lower numbers of repeat offenders, a huge reduction in violence and suicide in youth facilities and higher-than-average job placements and education levels compared to traditional juvenile lockups.

Officials in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Texas and the District of Columbia already have begun working with Missouri to develop similar programs. (Read more from Stateline.org about the Missouri model .)

Spearheaded by Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, North Carolina's so-called Learn and Earn program won its innovation award for boosting high school graduation rates and preparing kids for college and careers in the state.

The program began in 2004 and now includes nearly 20,000 students who attend 60 special high schools located on college campuses across the state. Qualifying low-income students can earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree or two years of college credit at no charge under a five-year program tailored for first-generation college bound students. The program also includes up to $4,000 in college grants for a participating student.

"By providing students free college while they are in high school and making a four-year degree more affordable, Learn and Earn gives children the opportunity to reach their full potential and helps North Carolina build the most skilled workforce in the nation," Easley said.

With soaring incarceration rates and nearly half of all prisoners returning to prison within three years of release, Arizona's "Getting Ready: Keeping Communities Safe" program already has resulted in plummeting violence and recidivism rates that translate into a $1.6 million savings for taxpayers, according to state officials.

Launched in 2004, the voluntary program was designed to prepare inmates at all custody levels for life outside by giving them responsibility for their own pre-release preparation. Developed with no new funding, the incentives-based program restructures prison life to resemble life in the community.

"We operate our prisons like the real world as much as we can with similar rules, responsibilities, and rewards," said Dora Schiriro, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Inmates are encouraged to earn high school equivalency degrees, maintain sobriety, work full time and participate in victim-focused volunteer activities during their leisure time. Job training and employment behind bars parallels experience in actual Arizona businesses.

The Ash Institute awards program "has been at the forefront of identifying government initiatives with the strongest potential for improving the lives of citizens," said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the program. "Each of today's winners produced a new, bold way of addressing a previously intractable problem."