Cuomo's plan to educate inmates makes sense


Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to give state prison inmates access to college degree programs has got critics sharpening their knives. 

A trio of Republican Congress members are behind the latest move against Cuomo's plan. House Representatives Chris Collins, Tom Reed, and Chris Gibson have introduced legislation, the Kids before Cons Act, that would prohibit the state from using federal funds to pay for convicted criminals' college education.

“The Governor’s latest plan to fund college educations for convicted criminals using taxpayer dollars is an insult to law abiding citizens all across our state," Collins said in a release posted on his Congressional website. "That is why, in response, I am introducing legislation that will ensure no federal taxpayer dollars are used to fund higher education for criminals. With 60 percent of college graduates in New York State carrying student debt, we must put our college kids before cons.”

But Collins, Reed, and Gibson do seem to see some value in helping "cons," as they call them, build job skills. They say their bill wouldn't apply to GED or work training programs. Regardless, their opposition to Cuomo's plan feels shortsighted.

Cuomo backs up his proposal with important numbers. Many people in the state's jails and prisons will someday be released back into the community, but statistics show that 40 percent will end up back in jail or prison.

Those odds drop, Cuomo says, if former inmates have a college degree. It costs the state $60,000 a year to house an inmate, he says, but only $5,000 a year to provide an inmate with college instruction. Under Cuomo's proposal, inmates would be able to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree in two-and-a-half or three years. Those degrees are about the minimum required to get a decent job nowadays.

"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," Cuomo said in a press release. 

Yes, New York's debt-carrying college graduates could certainly use help. I'm a New York native who went to college in the state, has been paying back student loans since 2001, and will still be paying off that debt for another five years. I'd love to at least be able to deduct my loan interest payments from my state taxes, like I can with my federal taxes. The state government could fix that problem.

But inmates shouldn't be deprived of a chance to learn because of my financial burden — one that I carry because of a choice I made. Society as a whole may benefit if inmates are given a chance to learn, to better themselves before they're released.