Tonawanda News

February 19, 2014

DUVALL: Middle ground on Cuomo's prison plan

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I find Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to pay for college degrees for the state’s prison inmates a compelling and incredibly interesting debate.

More than any issue in the news of late I think it defines — fairly on all sides — whether you’re a liberal, a moderate or a conservative.

Before the opinions, the facts: Cuomo, citing a pilot program at a prison near Albany, has proposed paying for inmates to obtain a college degree. The pilot program included 250 inmates. On average, of every 100 inmates in prison who are let free, 40 will find themselves back behind bars again. Of the 250 inmates who studied for college while serving their prison term, the recidivism rate dropped to just 4 percent.

It costs New York taxpayers $60,000 per year to house a single inmate in prison. It costs $5,000 per year to provide them with a college education. 

Cuomo and other liberals argue it’s a smart investment and rightly puts the emphasis back on the corrections part of the Department of Corrections.

Prison time isn’t just punishment for committing a crime. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be time spent trying to improve and correct the kind of behavior that warranted the state taking away an individual’s freedom.

After all, it isn’t called the Department of Punishment.

Conservatives are outraged the state would spend money on college degrees for criminals when law-abiding citizens are paying for their own tuition for the same degree.

We’re rewarding bad behavior while ignoring the good apples who are actually contributing to society — and not to mention paying some pretty high taxes to do it.

As is generally the case, the liberal argument is pragmatism rooted in idealism; the conservative argument is righteousness rooted in a sense of individual responsibility. 

There’s a third way.

Cuomo is right: Educating prisoners makes sense both fiscally and morally.

Conservatives are right: It isn’t fair to use taxpayer money to reward prison inmates with a perk law-abiding citizens aren’t afforded.

So how about if we found a way to maintain the pragmatic without compromising our sense of right and wrong?

It’s the rare but perfect situation where the government should partner with religious and other private institutions. Why not ask the Catholic church and other groups whether they can provide enough volunteers to teach enough classes to get inmates a two-year associates degree? This already happens on a smaller scale but it could, with a sustained effort, grow to be a larger, more successful initiative.

Inmates should have some skin in the game, too. There should be strict provisions stating poor behavior would see them kicked out of the program and made responsible for paying for what education they’ve received to that point. It would offer a powerful incentive for better behavior and weed out those who aren’t serious about turning their life around.

There are sensible ways government can put in place a framework that empowers people to better themselves without just throwing money at a problem with the idea it will pay dividends eventually.

Like I said, this is an interesting topic because both sides are partially right about it.

When that’s the case, there’s probably a compromise to be had. 

It’s a real test for Cuomo’s leadership to see how this whole thing plays out — or whether he’s really more interested in bolstering his liberal resume in preparation for a presidential run.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.