Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 9, 2014
In February, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a new statewide initiative to give prison inmates the opportunity to earn a college degree through funding college classes in prisons across the state.
In a press release the governor’s office revealed that New York currently spends $60,000 per year to incarcerate each inmate, and approximately $3.6 billion each year in total prison costs. New York’s current recidivism rate is about 40 percent. With a paltry investment of $5,000 per inmate to provide one year of college education, New York could cut into the recidivism rate and reduce costs.
Cuomo told National Public Radio that providing taxpayer-funded college classes in New York’s prisons is a common-sense plan that will reduce the number of inmates who commit new crimes. “Forget nice; let’s talk about self-interest,” Cuomo suggested.
Great idea, right? Not so fast.
In 1971, there was a deadly riot at Attica Prison in New York. Forty-three people died. During the riot inmates made numerous demands, one of which was for better educational programs. As a result, college education programs were soon available to inmates across the country through federal Pell Grants.
Then crime rates began to soar. In 1990, the homicide rate was nearly eight times what it is today in New York City and everyone wanted to get tough on crime.
By 1994, President Bill Clinton pushed through a tough crime bill that dramatically increased penalties for offenders and eliminated all federally financed college education for prison inmates. Pell Grants for federal and state prisons inmates were abolished.
“There must be no doubt about whose side we’re on,” Clinton said at the time. “People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted and punished. This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it.”
According to NPR, Clinton’s act was a victory for the tough-on-crime movement, but many prison experts now say dismantling inmate education programs was misguided.
Critics pointed out that education greatly reduces recidivism; only one-tenth of 1 percent of the Pell Grant budget went to the education of prisoners. New York Times Magazine reported that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, argued it was unfair for felons to benefit from Pell Grants when as many as 100,000 low-income students were denied them each year. She asked, “Why should prisoners be educated for nothing when so many honest folks failed to get a break?”
At the state capitol, lawmakers were outraged at Cuomo’s plan. Who cares if the plan could reduce crime and save taxpayers’ money. Some legislators started petitions to collect signatures from constituents who opposed the idea, including one with the title “Hell No to Attica University,” reported the New York Times.
The idea didn’t sit well with Washington politicians either. According to the Times, three Republican congressmen from the New York delegation introduced what they called the “Kids Before Cons Act,” which would prevent federal money from being used to pay for college classes for federal or state inmates.
The strenuous opposition continued even in the face of valid research that indicated receiving correctional education while incarcerated reduces recidivism rates. The Rand Corporation analyzed prison education programs and found that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to recidivate than inmates who did not.
In the face of growing opposition, Cuomo withdrew the plan. Cutting recidivism rates nearly in half would mean fewer victims, fewer inmates in prison and a reduction in prison costs. Lawmakers turned their backs on this opportunity because it gives inmates an advantage over “honest folks.” But honest folks deserve better than shortsighted political pandering.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.