Paying for college degrees for inmates will pay off for the state in the long run - The Buffalo News
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Paying for college degrees for inmates will pay off for the state in the long run

By announcing his intention to provide the opportunity for prison inmates to get a taxpayer-funded college degree, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is taking the risk of stoking the outrage of his political opponents.

But if you can look past the idea that criminals don’t deserve anything except punishment, the program makes economic sense. Cuomo’s people have run the numbers and are convinced that it is cheaper to educate inmates so they can become productive members of society after serving their sentences than it is to house them if they wind up back in the prison system. A study by the RAND Corp. backs that up.

The state pays $60,000 a year to keep a prisoner incarcerated and 40 percent of inmates return to prison. Current college programs in prison cost taxpayers $5,000 a year per prisoner and have a tiny recidivism rate.

While still short on details, the initiative would offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at 10 New York State prisons, one in each region. The state will be issuing a request for proposals starting March 3 seeking educational organizations that would provide college professors and classes in an accredited program.

The prisoner education plan would greatly help minority communities since, according to Cuomo, studies show that one of every three black American men will be incarcerated at some point in his lifetime, one in every six Latino men, compared to one in every 17 white men.

Cuomo offered the plan at the annual meeting of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in Albany. Not unexpectedly, Republicans have jumped all over this proposal with snappy catchphrases such as an email sent by Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy with the headline: “Cuomo Puts Cons Before Kids.”

Republican legislators have lined up against the proposal. The Democratic-controlled Assembly is likely to go for the plan and there may be enough votes for it in the leadership coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats in the Senate.

Cuomo, Democrats and Republicans all recognize the value of a college education. The governor’s proposal would help inmates achieve that goal, and thereby reduce the burden on taxpayers. But what about law-abiding students? Shouldn’t there be some help for them?

If this is really going to save the state a substantial amount of money, Cuomo should take an advance on that money and put it toward making college a bit more affordable.

Money issue aside, prisons are more than places to punish criminals. They also should at least attempt to rehabilitate them so they are less likely to reoffend. It is difficult enough for former inmates to get by. Rather than rewarding criminal behavior, a college degree will help them get a decent job and put past mistakes behind them.

The claim that people would be willing to commit a felony and be sent to prison in order to get a college degree is ludicrous.

The governor’s argument that it is better to educate prisoners who will eventually be released into society is sound, but nearly drowned out by the din of opposition. The proposal will save money, keep some ex-inmates from committing new crimes and help some offenders become taxpaying New Yorkers. While not as catchy as “Cuomo Puts Cons Before Kids,” it’s the right thing to do.

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