Imagine a group of Minnesotans whose housing and living costs were much higher than the state average. Now imagine that taxpayers were paying the bills.

That population does exist -- in Minnesota's corrections system, where we spend $33,000 a year per inmate. The high price we pay to keep people in prison, including many repeat offenders, suggests that Minnesota's current practices regarding high-risk adults could use innovative, cost-saving alternatives.

The costs don't end -- they often grow -- once a prisoner is released. Ex-offenders who return to our communities without stable housing, without employment skills, and with untreated mental and physical health problems are more likely to cycle in and out of the corrections system, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year. And on top of state costs, add local law enforcement, social service, court and community-safety burdens.

Joseph used to be one of those men. He figures he cycled through the local jail at least 20 times. His first serious offense, for cocaine possession, came when he was 30. He was paroled after two years in prison, only to end up back behind bars eight months later.

Recently, Joseph took a different path. Instead of returning to the streets, he enrolled in The NetWork for Better Futures. This innovative enterprise was selected to administer a state demonstration project pilot started in 2007 with bipartisan support. The NetWork puts men like Joseph on a path of stability by ensuring that he has basic needs met for a limited time -- a place to live, access to health care and drug treatment, and a job on a construction crew.

Joseph used to be a drain on taxpayers. Now he pays taxes and contributes to his family and community. He's stayed out of trouble, has a good relationship with his teenaged sons and remains drug-free.

This pilot's initial success is based on these distinctive features:

1. Participants are expected to work, stay crime-free and pay child support.

2. The NetWork's genuine community experience reduces isolation and builds trust, responsibility and camaraderie.

3. Immediate access to housing and work serves as a portal to better health and recovery.

4. This pilot virtually guarantees taxpayers a return on their investment. The NetWork is advocating for a "pay for performance" reimbursement structure.

5. Public funding for this pilot will leverage $4.3 million in private funds and earned income.

The NetWork's early success offers promise that Minnesota can reverse its growing cost of corrections and reduce its return to prison rates. One quarter of Minnesota's ex-offenders go back to prison for a new felony. Among NetWork participants, fewer than 10 percent return.

Despite the success this demonstration has shown in three years, it's continuation is not funded in either the House or Senate budget proposals at this time.

There is no question that these times demand tough budget decisions and a commitment to fiscal responsibility. But these times also demand real, serious reform, like the reforms being proven effective through this demonstration.

If someone commits a felony and ends up in prison, shame on him. If that person leaves prison only to return again and again, shame on us if we don't look for better ways to address this problem. We write to urge the Legislature to include reforms like this demonstration in the budget.

Paul Kohls, of Victoria, is a former Republican state representative. Richard W. Stanek is the Hennepin County sheriff.