Cuomo asks state to fund college for prison inmates

AP Photo/Mike Groll
By Kelsey Durham

Two state lawmakers from Queens had mixed reactions this week to news of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initiative that would allow inmates to earn a college degree while serving their prison sentences.

The proposal, announced Feb. 16, would use state dollars to fund college classes in 10 prisons across New York, one in each major region, the governor’s office said.

The initiative is designed to encourage a lower risk of returning to crime and prison, which Cuomo’s office said happens 40 percent of the time in New York state after an inmate is released.

Under the new initiative, inmates could earn either an associate or a bachelor’s degree that would take anywhere between 2 1/2 to three years to complete. One year of college education for one inmate costs around $5,000, the office said, and the state currently spends about $60,000 per year to keep one inmate incarcerated.

By investing in education, Cuomo said the initiative would save the state money in the long run if it is successful because it would keep people out of prison and fewer tax dollars would be spent maintaining a smaller number of inmates.

“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Cuomo said. “Existing programs show that providing a college education in our prisons is much cheaper for the state and delivers far better results. Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime.”

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) issued a statement in response to Cuomo’s proposal and cited the Dream Act, whose goal is to give permanent residency to certain qualifying immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools.

Avella said he does not necessarily disagree with Cuomo’s initiative, but said other ways to provide educational opportunities also need to be revisited.

“While I support the concept of the governor’s proposal and understand that prisoners with college degrees are less likely to commit a crime after their release, I cannot help but ask, ‘What about the Dream Act?’” Avella said. “There are countless individuals and families in New York state whose children are working hard in school but who are unable to afford college tuition. If the state Legislature implements Gov. Cuomo’s proposal of providing college degrees to prisoners, we must implement the Dream Act and increase funding for college scholarships at the same time so that everyone can get a college education.”

Albert Garcia, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said there is no time line for when the initiative would begin, but he said Cuomo is committed to funding the program and will begin putting it in the state budget to put money behind it.

“We spend so much on incarceration, and this is a surefire way to invest in the future,” Garcia said. “The lower recidivism rates are evidence that these programs really work.”

The state will begin issuing requests for proposals March 3 that will allow facilities to apply to be chosen as one of the 10 prisons to be included in the initiative, which Garcia said is already being tested out in a few of New York’s prisons. He said the forms will look at who could run the programs and how much experience they have in similar projects.

State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Flushing) serves on the Assembly Correction Committee and said she is looking forward to working with Cuomo and other state officials to help reduce recidivism rates.

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at kdurham@cnglocal.com.

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