Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: Free College Education For All (Including Prison Inmates)

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Taking the above quote to the extreme, defending something because it is “how we currently do it” is an even more “dangerous” way of thinking.

America’s public college and prison systems are currently flawed. Prison reform has gained traction because it is a cost saving measure. Providing free public higher education, as we used to do in this country, has not gained similar traction, because it would require additional funding.

There is an area where these two issues–prison reform and free higher education–intersect; offering college degree programs to prison inmates (which, again, used to be a much more common practice):

IN February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, building on the success of privately funded and widely praised programs like the Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year. 

The punch lines of the opposing politicians (mostly Republicans, but some Democrats) all struck the same theme: How dare the governor offer taxpayer money to educate convicted criminals when decent citizens skimp and borrow to send their kids to college? “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” said George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.” In other words, let criminals be criminals.

The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason. This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.

Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”

This is not a bleeding-heart cause. Leading conservatives and red-state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. A RAND meta-analysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment.

Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.

America has greatly reduced access to college and graduate degree programs for prison inmates. Coinciding with mass incarceration, this policy change has effectively turned prison into a uniquely American poverty-trap.

Free public education in America has become almost non-existent, and the results are not pretty. There is roughly $900B-$1T dollars in outstanding student loan debt in America. One reason for this is that college tuition increases have far outstripped inflation over the past few decades.

People correctly argue that law abiding citizens should not have to pay exorbitant college tuition rates, while prisoners receive a free college education. However, this argument misses the point; a free public college education should be available to everyone! 

Aside from the obvious socioeconomic benefits associated with greater access to higher education (both in and out of prison), such a policy would also help reign in increasing tuition costs at private Universities. Make these institutions compete with a free alternative, and the price of college tuition should drop for those who still desire a private education.

This “us vs. them” mentality is indicative of public policy discourse in America, and it is a shame. Instead of debating the costs and benefits of policy reforms, we are stuck in a circle of spite; “I didn’t have this benefit, why should someone else!”. 

This “argument” misses the point of policy reform–whether or not people believe they would have been better off with said reform (spiteful responses suggests that people do, on some level, believe that said reform would have helped them)? It precludes truly progressive policy reforms, such as providing everyone with access to free public higher education. Of course this would require a greater public investment (although it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the deficit); the questions are whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and how those costs will be financed.

American politics has become a class battle between those below the poverty line and those barely above it. All the while, inequality increases and the American Dream becomes just that, a dream.

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