As of Feb. 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to provide college degree programs to prisoners in 10 New York State prisons. He said that this will save taxpayer money in the long run. Currently, New York pays about $60,000 per prisoner each year, according to Cuomo in his announcement. The chances of a prisoner returning to prison are about 40 percent. Existing programs have shown that prisoners who have earned a college degree are much less likely to end up in prison again.
This is expected to save taxpayers money because, while it is still $5,000 per year, a college degree is significantly cheaper than holding a person behind bars. It is predicted that educating inmates can lead to better lives after jail.
Although Livingston County Jail and SUNY Geneseo are not involved in this initiative, Interim President Carol Long said, “I believe it is a good thing to provide education for inmates, both to improve their lives and to reduce recidivism rates.”
While Livingston County Jail is a short-term holding cell (stays of normally one year or less), it does offer a GED program for inmates. The initiative, however, applies to state-run prisons, while Livingston is a local jail.
The program, if passed, will offer associate and bachelor degrees to prisoners that will take about two and a half to three years to earn.
The program has faced opposition, especially from members of the Republican Party. New York State Republican Sens. Greg Ball and George Maziarz started a petition on Tuesday Feb. 25 to block the program.
“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,” Ball said in a statement.
Assemblyman James Skoufis iterated the opposition to the initiative.
“Our students face out-of-control costs and crushing debt if they decide to pursue a degree. Hardworking families need help going to college, not prison inmates,” Skoufis said, in an article in the Democrat & Chronicle.
In spite of the ideological differences of how to spend taxpayer dollars, college degree programs used in the past have been seen to benefit inmates, according to Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell who also serves as chair of the Assembly Committee on Correction.
O’Donnell has visited 12 prisons in the past year, and through discussions with inmates, prison staff and educators, it became apparent that the college programs are beneficial in reducing the recidivism rate for released convicts.
“Reducing the unfortunate cycle of recidivism is a moral imperative, especially because of the discriminatory and disproportionate impact this system has on minority communities. Instituting college education programs is a proven way to do so,” O’Donnell said, in a press release from the Governor’s Press Office.
The remaining question is not whether a college degree will help a person succeed; rather, it is who deserves access to such an education.