Local Lawmakers Against Cuomo’s Prisoner Degree Plan

A proposal to fund college classes and degrees for prisoners may create more problems than it solves.

The proposal, announced last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would not only allow for the funding of college classes to New York state inmates, but would ultimately cultivate the provision of college degrees to them – a proposition which has raised much concern among legislators.

“I support all reasonable efforts to help inmates become productive, law-abiding citizens once they leave prison. I do not support a proposal to give them a free college education,” said state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Chautauqua.

Goodell said he has several reasons to believe the proposal would not serve the best interest of his constituency. First and foremost, he said it is “grossly unfair” to law-abiding residents who are already struggling to come by higher education honestly.

“We never want a system that rewards felons for committing serious crimes,” Goodell said. “Law-abiding residents are struggling to pay for college and pay off college debt, so it sends the wrong message when we tell people, ‘If you’re sentenced to prison, you can earn a college education for free.'”

Goodell also said the proposal is not cost effective because receiving employment upon graduation is no longer a guarantee. He said even current college graduates are having difficulty finding jobs in a soft hiring market, let alone the fact that employers would likely prefer to hire a law-abiding graduate over a convicted felon with a degree.

He said it would make more economic sense to provide skills and job training to inmates in order to prepare them for a specific trade upon their release from prison.

“I believe that the most cost-effective help we can provide for inmates is to make sure they get a high school diploma or GED, and obtain skills or job training,” Goodell said. “If we’re setting up a program to maximize benefits for inmates, what I think we should do is survey the communities to see where there are job shortages and provide training to address that shortage – rather than provide, at the taxpayer’s expense, very expensive college degrees with little prospect of employment.”

Backlash to the proposal among legislators was readily apparent after state Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, started an online petition against it. The petition gained 424 signatures within the first three hours of its Feb. 18 launch date, and now stands just short of 7,000 signatures.

“I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer’s dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education,” Grisanti said in a press release announcing the petition.

Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, shared a similar sentiment, saying she is strongly opposed to the proposal.

“It has struck a raw nerve with many of my constituents because most people feel that their hard-earned tax dollars should not be spent to give free college degrees to convicted felons,” Young said. “They believe it is an affront to all parents who have scrimped and saved to send their kids to college. It is a slight to every student who has worked one, two, and even three jobs to put him or herself through school. Our hardworking middle-class families are the ones who deserve a break.”

Cuomo’s program would offer associate and bachelor’s degree educations at 10 prisons, one in each region of the state. Cuomo says it will reduce the likelihood of inmates returning to crime. He proposed spending approximately $5,000 a year for an inmate’s education, noting it already costs about $60,000 to incarcerate each of the state’s 54,000 inmates.

Representatives of local college institutions weighed in on the topic, saying logistics behind the funding of the proposal need to be straightened out before the participation of the colleges could be considered.

Mike Barone, director of public relations at SUNY Fredonia, said the proposal needs to be fleshed out before decisions can be made.

“I think a lot more detail needs to be looked into for something like this to work,” Barone said. “Fredonia is, and always will be, a residential college with a traditional four-year experience. I would think the shell of that idea could work for Gov. Cuomo’s initiative, but you still have to figure out the finances of it. Who’s paying the cost per inmate, and who’s getting it? Those are the kinds of questions that we have to look much deeper into.”

Nelson Garifi, director of marketing and academic initiatives at Jamestown Community College, said the college is not prepared to take a formal stance on the proposal, but would be open to participation.

“While JCC is not taking a position on the governor’s proposal, in keeping with our mission, we will certainly respond to a request to meet the region’s higher education needs should the opportunity be presented,” Garifi said.

According to Cuomo’s office, the state took bids on March 3 from educational associations to provide college professors and classes in an accredited program. Sheldon Silver, Assembly speaker, said the proposal will be set before the Assembly for official review at a later date.