To lower the prison population, offering a college education to inmates might improve recidivism rates and lower overall crime.
“The case for full public financing of prison education is stronger than it has ever been,” the editorial board of the The New York Times declared.
The debate in New York surrounding a pilot program for prisoners to get a college education dates back to 2014. Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to push it through, but it was rejected by state legislators. Cuomo argues that the plan will save taxpayer money by lowering crime rates and expanding economic opportunities for prisoners upon their release. Opponents think the approach is unfair, favoring the imprisoned over the law-abiding.
The high cost of incarceration and re-incarceration of former inmates has driven policymakers to rethink “tough on crime” policy and evaluate based on results. The Times pointed to a report by the New York State Bar Association that finds that many former inmates resort to crime based on economic reasons. Preparing inmates for the workforce benefits prisoners, but also a state system that has fewer criminals to process and jail.
“Correcting this cyclical effect is beneficial to both re-entering individuals and society as a whole by alleviating the very profound barriers to employment present for those returning to their communities,” the Bar Association report noted. To make communities safer and drive down crime rates, expanding economic opportunity will be critical.
Comparatively few prisoners could take advantage of the program, however. New York inmates are less educated than the general population; only 59 percent “had achieved either a high school or equivalency diploma.” That mirrors the incarcerated population of the United States, where 68 percent “of state prison inmates did not receive a high school diploma,” according to a 2003 report form the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A further 26 percent of state prison inmates completed a GED while in a correctional facility.
If state prison systems don’t offer educational opportunities, prisoners are unlikely to get a high school or college degree otherwise. Republican politicians might grate against the idea of public funds for prisoners, but taxpayer money will go to educational and economic opportunity for prisoners, or to police and prisons to combat recidivism and crime.