A $60,000 'education'
Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a groundbreaking plan to offer college courses to prison inmates in the state. There was immediate uproar from both sides of the aisle and in a rare move, Cuomo retreated and announced he would not proceed with the bold new program.
Except it wasn't a new plan at all - up until 20 years ago, the U.S. had a robust system of college and vocational courses available to prisoners. The system helped inmates get back on their feet after they were released and reduced recidivism. There's no good reason the programs were removed and they should be reinstated for both ethical and practical reasons.
As a "correctional" program, our prison system is literally failing - two thirds of all inmates return to prison after they're released. The 'tough on crime' policies that were popular in recent decades have largely proved to be failures, counterintuitively encouraging more crime and recidivism.
The removal of college courses from prisons was one of these "tough on crime" policies. In 1994, congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. One of its provisions prevented prisoners from taking advantage of Pell Grants to take college courses. At that time, there were 350 college degree programs for inmates in the U.S. By 2005, that number had fallen to 12. New York State even passed a law explicitly prohibiting prisoners from receiving state tuition aid.
Now, Governor Cuomo wants to spend an extra $5,000 per inmate per year to provide college programs. Programs like these have been very successful at reducing recidivism. The average cost to incarcerate someone for a year in New York state is about $60,000 (just about the cost of one year at NYU), so return on this investment would be very quick. But that's not the way we think about crime and justice in the U.S.
Our attitude towards criminals has given us plenty of crime to get tough on. According to The Sentencing Project, the U.S. prison population has increased 500 percent over the past thirty years. Crime rates have been falling for the past two decades, but needlessly harsh policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug offences have created a boom in prison population.
Bill Keller, in his column for the New York Times, voiced an important aspect of the issue- the conflict between punishment, rehabilitation and public safety. We lock up criminals to keep them off the streets, but 95 percent of them will eventually be released and the majority of those will commit a crime again. Many politicians oppose rehabilitation programs because they don't like the idea of "Club Med for inmates", as one New York lawmaker put it, but rehabilitation directly correlates with public safety. It is not only safer for the public, but far cheaper to rehabilitate prisoners instead of creating career criminals.
As for punishment, prison is harsh enough already. If you go to jail, it's more likely than not that your life will be ruined. Upon being released from prison, you've wasted time and gained no experience or education. Your job prospects are poor. You're ostracized from society and often financially insolvent. This is all after you've supposedly "paid your debt to society." Harsh sentencing designed to act as a deterrent also ignores socioeconomic motivations for crime.
I always found it ironic that it was the conservative movement that got behind these 'tough on crime' policies. People languish in jail for years, completely at the expense of taxpayers. They're denied the opportunity to contribute to the economy. For every year that a prisoner is kept in jail, it becomes less likely that they'll become a productive member of society on release. Those pushing for harsher sentencing seem to forget that if you want to punish someone with the justice system, it's going to cost law-abiding citizens money.
This plan is not a $60,000 education. It's a $5,000 expense designed to stave off a much larger financial and social cost down the road.
Of course, there were many people who disagreed that this program was a justified expense, mostly on the grounds that it wasn't fair for law-abiding citizens who worked hard to attend college to subsidize criminals' education.
Sure, it's not fair. But it's cheaper than paying for a lifetime in the corrections system, and it's your money. A RAND Corp. analysis showed that prisoners who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to jail. So, for $65,000 instead of $60,000, rehabilitation was nearly twice as successful. This program should have broad bipartisan support, because it's simply the cheapest, smartest and most socially effective option.
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