Educating inmates has benefits

Recently Gov. Andrew Cuomo attracted criticism for announcing his plans to finance college classes in 10 state prisons. According to the New York Times, “the initiative will offer inmates the opportunity to earn either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree over the course of two to three years.”

Some view this as acknowledgment that under-education tends to concentrate in prisons. While about 20 percent of the national public doesn’t have a high school diploma that number rises to nearly 40 percent among prisoners.

But many view this step as an insult to law abiding citizens. “Criminals should be doing time, not earning a degree,” said one local representative, suggesting rehabilitation for reintegration into society is absolutely not why we send people to prison. We spend enough money on “privileges” for criminals.

Ironically this mode of thought comes at extreme cost to the taxpayer.

In 2010, according to the Department of Correctional Services “total cost of New York’s prisons – to incarcerate an average daily population of 59,237 – was almost $3.6 billion.” That’s an average of roughly $60,000 per inmate.

Looking at the cost of the incentives in Cuomo’s proposal, educating a person in the New York State prison system over two to three years would round off at about $5,000 a year. Not very much, considering recidivism has proven to be substantially reduced among participants of correctional education programs

A report by the Pew Research Center highlights the importance of this assertion. In 2010 about 50 percent of inmates in the state were rearrested for new crimes within three years of being released from prison. These are individuals who for whatever reason found it difficult or impossible to reintegrate into society, and are returned to jail, another sentence at $60,000 a year underwritten by our taxes.

There was a significant difference among various types of offenders that seemed to decide which inmates were most likely to relapse into criminal habits.

Within three years, 2.5 percent of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2 percent of those who had served time for homicide were rearrested for homicide.

Robbers (70.2 percent), burglars (74 percent), larcenists (74.6 percent), motor vehicle thieves (78.8 percent), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4 percent), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2 percent) had high rates of recidivism.

These crimes are not what one would term, “sociopathic.” Robbing banks, possessing, using, or selling drugs are not crimes of depraved indifference to the well-being of others. They are crimes of opportunism, more likely the products of addiction and disillusionment in individuals who are thinking in the short term. For them, that’s where the pressure to survive is coming from: bills; food; habits.

Opposition to Cuomo’s initiatives suggests that such funding acts as incentive for young men and women to “rob a store, go to jail, and get their degree.” I find this a flawed approach, ignoring a significant difference between a degree from Ithaca College and one earned while serving a sentence in Attica Penitentiary for armed robbery: namely, the imprisonment.

To surrender years of one’s life to be spent in an uncommonly hostile environment, in the company of the nation’s poorest men (or women), in exchange for a degree is a wholly irrational tradeoff. Certainly not one a person interested in higher education would willingly make – one who recognizes the advantage of a college education in searching for employment likely recognizes the disadvantage brought on by a criminal record.

A related argument suggests the state should put up financial aid for law-abiding citizens before even thinking about education for prisoners. I agree that higher education should be accessible to everyone in this, the world’s leading industrial democracy. However the two causes cannot be compared because the spending scales are not similar. First, Cuomo’s initiative has far less financial impact given the much lower number of prisoners compared to students residing in the state. Second, because fronting $5,000 a year is a fraction of what it would cost to send the average citizen outside of prison to school.

Many ask, “will this initiative be effective?” One recent report from the RAND Corp., a libertarian think tank, answers with a resounding yes.

Titled, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education” the paper details a comprehensive literature search for published and unpublished studies released between 1980 and 2011, and examined the relationship between correctional education participation and inmate outcomes. The study found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. In this way correctional education can be cost-effective.

The RAND study does qualify these results, stating that in order to be cost effective and contribute to the state’s economy in the long run, safeguards must be set up. Some examples include stipulations regarding the length of sentence, the nature of the crime committed, requiring a high school diploma or equivalency and the potential for an inmate to be a good citizen upon release.

Ultimately the community level is where we will see the impact of this legislation. When these men and women return to our communities after years of incarceration, I want my tax dollars spent ensuring they are equipped with the right tools to be socially and economically productive.

Benjamin Carpenter is a Dunkirk resident.