A good start to a continuing problem

In long run, Cuomo’s plan to give inmates a college education is beneficial

By JORDAN OSCAR
On February 20, 2014

  • Comedian Eric O’Shea brought full-fledged vulgarities to his stand-up show for UB Late Night on Saturday. Yeasol Lim /// The Spectrum

The U.S. penitentiary system creates a vicious cycle that never ends: people go to prison, serve their time, get released and can't find jobs as convicted felons - many wind up back in jail.

This pattern isn't just destructive to communities throughout the country. It's not cost effective, and it isn't helping convicts assimilate into our society.

It's a cycle that needs to change.

On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a new program that would offer inmates the ability to get a college education. He said it would keep many of them from returning to prison by giving them a greater chance of being successful once they got out.

Cuomo's proposal would offer inmates in 10 prisons throughout New York State the opportunity to earn either an associate's or a bachelor's degree over the course of two to three years. It would cost the state an additional $5,000 each year per inmate. 

That amount might look like a lot of money (or very little compared to what we pay as college students), but it's negligible in comparison to the $60,000 it costs to house each inmate and the $3.6 billion the state spends annually on its prison system, according to a press release from Cuomo's office.

Although the costs are a major issue, the real problem is the roughly 40 percent of inmates who reenter the prison system within three years of their release because they can't get jobs as uneducated convicted felons.

As of 2003, over 68 percent of inmates across the country don't even have a GED or high school diploma, according to Department of Justice statistics. And programs like this have been shown to reduce inmates' rates of re-incarceration by up to 90 percent, according to Cuomo's statement.

Cuomo cited a similar program at Bard College in Dutchess County that offered college degrees to 500 inmates, 250 of whom completed the program. Only 4 percent of participants and 2.5 percent of graduates returned to prison after they were released.

"Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life," Cuomo said. "Because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime."

But Cuomo's proposed program isn't cheap and has sparked a lot of controversy and debate since its announcement.

Many seem outraged at the prospect of taxpayers' dollars helping convicts get a college education when some law-abiding citizens can't afford college and don't receive financial aid. Others offer a similar sentiment over the state's deteriorating public school system and budget issues.

Meanwhile, college students may be left wondering why they are falling deeper into debt when they could go to jail and get their education paid for at everyone else's expense.

As a student who is going to graduate over $30,000 in debt, I sympathize with people's frustration over our nation's student-debt crisis. My situation is similar to a lot of the people I've met on campus: my parents make too much money for me to qualify for aid, but not enough to help me pay for college.

Making college more affordable is an enormous task that needs to be addressed, just likethe problems with public education. But that shouldn't have any bearing on Cuomo's attempts to fix a different issue.

It's easy to condemn Cuomo's proposal because it isn't putting money into education reform. But the money going into prison reform wouldn't automatically go toward financial aid for college students. Both issues are becoming increasingly pressing.

Giving convicts a second chance through education will not only reduce crime rates and stimulate our economy, it will stop the destruction mass incarceration is causing in our communities and save millions of tax dollars.

But people don't think about all of these factors when they rashly condemn Cuomo's plan. When they see a multifaceted issue and someone comes up with a solution to fix one of those facets, people dismiss it because it doesn't fix the issue as a whole.

I hope Cuomo's proposal is the first of many similar plans that will fix our broken prison system.

His plan is a good start.

           

email: jordan.oscar@ubspectrum.com


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