Free education for felons?

In the United States, what role do we assign to our felons post-sentence? Notwithstanding the assumptions and stereotypes that are commonly imposed on convicts, there is a yawning gap in opportunity in life after prison. In 1994, Congress cut access to Pell grants that allowed prisoners to receive college degrees while serving time. With Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to expand educational opportunities for convicted felons, the failures of our incarceration system are back in the headlines.

Cuomo’s proposal seeks to reduce recidivism and continue the trend of declining prison populations in New York. A study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution, found that correctional education reduces the likelihood of recidivism for inmates.

Critics of Cuomo’s proposal are incensed by the notion that criminals should be entitled to an education, while law-abiding Americans struggle to put themselves through college.

New York Sen. Greg Ball said, “In a world of finite resources, where we are struggling to find funding for education for our kids, the last thing New York State should be funding is college tuition for convicts.”

At the core of the issue is how felons are viewed in civil society. Many are quick to make moral judgments of those in jail but ignore the circumstances that may have led to their crimes. What’s worse is that, after their stay in prison, felons have even less opportunities and are likely to end up in jail yet again.

This is especially true of those jailed for drug crimes. In many areas of the country, drug dealing is a viable means to earn income. With poor educational infrastructure and a dearth of unskilled jobs that pay a living wage, many Americans find pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to be practically impossible. For them, crime is not simply a choice; it is a survival tactic.

A confluence of educational opportunities for inmates and further redress of sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes could cement New York as a leader in dismantling the drug war’s most damaging elements. The state’s prison population has fallen to approximately 54,200 since 1999 – when it reached a peak of 72,600 – thanks largely to drug law reform.

The stigma that follows Americans who are just trying to survive isolates them even further. Expanding educational opportunities for inmates would be a major step in transitioning our prison system from its current punitive structure to a rehabilitative institution that addresses the root causes of crime and works to eliminate them.