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Governor Cuomo’s Cost-Saving Prescription for Safer Streets: Prisoner Education

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Legislators in New York State are discussing a controversial treatment program for offenders which, multiple studies have demonstrated, typically reduces the likelihood of a released prisoner being returned to prison to just one-tenth the rate of those who did not receive the treatment.

Image courtesy cnn.com

Image courtesy cnn.com

New York State prisons currently hold almost 55,000 prisoners at a total annual cost to the state of $3.6 billion. The annual cost of incarceration for each prisoner is around $60,000. Imprisonment as a social tool is frustratingly ineffective. About 95 percent of inmates will be released to the community, but 40 percent of them will be back in prison within three years of release. Within 10 years of release that figure rises to a staggering 70 to 80 percent. The cost to taxpayers is enormous, and constantly increasing.

Pilot studies at 22 prisons around the state have shown that a certain treatment is extraordinarily effective, reducing the three-year recidivism rate by 90 percent, from 40 percent to just 4 percent. Indeed, certain variants of the treatment reduce the rate by 94 percent to a tiny 2.5 percent, a 16-fold reduction. What’s more, this type of treatment is remarkably cost-effective at only $1,800 to $5,000 per inmate. That’s just 3 to 8 percent of the cost of a year’s imprisonment in New York state prisons.

To better illustrate what this means, consider 100 inmates being released from prison. Without treatment, 40 of them will be back in prison at a cost to the state of $2.4 million per year. With treatment, only four would be expected to be re-imprisoned, at a cost of $240,000 per year. Once you take into account the cost of treatment, the savings add up to almost $1.7 million per year. The savings from those 100 inmates would pay for the treatment of another 340. And that’s just for 100 prisoners. Now note that New York prisons house almost 55,000 prisoners.

Providing this treatment to prisoners seems like a no-brainer. So where is the controversy? The answer is moral outrage. Moral outrage at the possibility of requiring inmates to take a potentially harmful treatment? Electric shock therapy perhaps? No. In fact, the treatment is safe, voluntary, and demand from the inmates vastly exceeds supply.

The treatment in question, believe it or not, is post-secondary correctional education. Those who obtain their GED in prison are 20-25 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated. That’s certainly worthwhile, and it’s the only education available in most prisons, but it pales besides the 90-plus percent reduction in recidivism seen in inmates who participate in college-level programs.

However, hard-line attitudes of the 1980s “tough on crime” era are still thriving in modern America. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he intends to partially fund college programs in 10 state prisons has been met with howls of protest. State Senator Greg Ball speaks for many Republican lawmakers when he says, “Free college tuition for prisoners is a slap in the face to hard-working New Yorkers that work multiple jobs and take out exorbitant student loans to pay for the cost of higher education.” At first look, that visceral reaction is understandable, but we expect and need those who govern to think rationally and act in our best interest.

For starters, there’s the pure financial argument. Of course, not every inmate will be willing, or indeed academically capable, of taking college-level classes, but for those who are, that 90 percent reduction in the rate of re-incarceration offers the potential for huge economic savings. Government analysts in Maryland calculated that prison education programs saved taxpayers $24 million per year. Florida saved $65 million over two years by cutting its recidivism rate by four percent, and Texas estimates that correctional education there has saved $95 million per year. The Pew Center on the States estimates that California could save $233 million each year by reducing its recidivism rate by just 10 percent. That kind of money could be used to help the same hard-working, law-abiding New Yorkers with their own educations.

As we worry about how our young people will pay for higher education, we should also think about the type of world in which we want them to live and raise their own children. Hopefully, it’s not a world in which America, with only five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and does it so inefficiently that up to 80 percent of them return to prison after being released. Our ruinously expensive correctional juggernaut is clearly broken and needs fixing, so that it can return persons to the streets as motivated, employable, law-abiding citizens.

Republican lawmakers, who generally are trusted more on law enforcement issues, have great credibility to promote penal reform and keep it on track. As experience in Texas has shown, such reforms can be highly effective. It is to be hoped that GOP lawmakers in New York will look again at the great benefits that can accrue from making college-level education available to prisoners, and muster the courage to claim those rewards for New Yorkers.

To quote Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world,” and it is far and away the most effective tool to transform the lives of prisoners, and turn them away from crime permanently, thereby making our streets and neighborhoods safer. Given the remarkable cost-effectiveness, it is time to set aside the notion that education is some kind of luxury or reward for prisoners, and instead objectively explore the possibility that providing post-secondary correctional education to our incarcerated citizens can help us toward our long-term goal of safer streets, and less of our hard-earned tax dollars being swallowed up by prisons. Governor Cuomo’s relatively modest proposal to help fund such programs in 10 New York state prisons seems to be a great opportunity to help make this goal a reality.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.