State-Funded College for Convicts?

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently set off a firestorm by saying he wants to reintroduce state-funded college classes in state prisons. He wants classes in 10 prisons as a trial. Such classes were defunded in the 1990s. Meanwhile bipartisan federal legislation would give time credit for prisoners in education programs.  

Cuomo’s proposal does raise interesting and important issues about the value and fairness of prison-based college.  

Much initial reaction has been perhaps understandable. Many ask how it can be right to spend taxes on free college for criminals when law-abiding students in college have to pay tuition and many go deep into debt. He’s also been accused of creating a “Club Med” for inmates. For good measure, state advocates of early childhood education say Cuomo is putting convicts before kids.

But there are telling points on the other side of the ledger. Over half of released prisoners end up getting rearrested with many coming back to prison. In part that’s because there are so many obstacles to going straight when you have a prison record. The American Bar Association has identified thousands of federal and state “collateral” consequences offenders face, including being barred from most college assistance for even misdemeanor offences. Supporters of college classes argue that these additional penalties and permanent restrictions are an unfair additional “life sentence” of lower earnings,  hurting not just the ex-cons but also their families.

If spending $5,000 a year on classes means an inmate is released with marketable college skills and doesn’t return and chalk up $60,000 a year in prison costs, says Cuomo, that’s a huge saving for taxpayers. Others agree. Indeed, a meta-analysis of many studies by the RAND Corporation and the Department of Justice found that inmates receiving such education programs, including GED as well as college classes, on average “had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.” While high school/GED programs were the most common, RAND found no differing impact from post-secondary prison classes.

New York already has some privately funded prisoner education programs operated by universities such as Cornell and Bard, and backed by the universities’ top brass. Advocates say that not only do college courses prepare inmates for life after release, but also they help to control behavior inside prison, in part by providing role models for other prisoners.

To be sure, Cuomo’s college proposal will face heavy sledding in the state Assembly, where politicians from both sides are lining up against it. But it does underscore the fact that if we are to reduce the staggering costs of incarceration, released inmates need skills that will give them a good chance to succeed by working rather than by returning to crime – and returning to prison – and these days college-level skills are increasingly the “must-have” credential. And the opponents’ charge of unfairness is a reminder that cutting costly recidivism through education will be hard to enact as long as law-abiding Americans seeking a degree face heavy tuition costs and indebtedness. 

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