Education: New York's Solution to Recidivism

February 21, 2014

This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a common sense plan for the state to begin funding college courses in prisons. The program, launching this fall, will allow inmates to earn college degrees, which in turn will help reduce the likelihood of their return to prison.

In many ways, New York’s criminal justice system is broken. The state has the fourth largest prison population in the United States. Despite high rates of incarceration and sentencing, each year the state releases over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, nearly 40 percent of New York prisoners eventually return to prison. Cuomo’s plan aims to fix the state’s criminal justice system by giving inmates new opportunities, increasing public safety, and lowering the number of people incarcerated.

The math is straightforward. Our criminal justice system is staggeringly expensive. Incarcerating one person costs the state $60,000 each year. College class expenses for the same person would add approximately $5,000 but would greatly reduce the chance of his return to crime. This plan saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.

The plan is based on the Bard Prison Initiative, a program created at Bard College in 1999. Since its inception, the Bard Prison Initiative has educated 500 inmates and awarded degrees to 250 people. Of those who have completed the program, only 4 percent have returned to the criminal justice system.

Upon release, prisoners often have trouble reentering society. A criminal record is a difficult stigma to shed. Many businesses are unwilling to hire them. Housing opportunities can be few and far between. If not addressed, these obstacles increase the likelihood that they will find themselves caught up in the system again within three years.

Education decreases these odds. For example, the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco helps those in jail obtain their high school diploma or GED with great success. Five Keys graduates have a recidivism rate of 44 percent, compared to their fellow inmates’ rate of 68 percent. The dramatic drop in recidivism has saved San Francisco $1.5 million a year incarceration expenses.

As state officials across the nation search for solutions to our country’s criminal justice crisis, they should consider using funding programs, like New York’s, to invest in rehabilitating people. To end the cycle of recidivism, we must ensure that we give them the chance for a future.