Several lawmakers are calling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to provide inmates in New York state prisons with a college education unfair to middle class students and their families.
Capital Region legislators are speaking out against the proposal, slamming Cuomo’s push to educate inmates rather than working to reduce the cost of college for students statewide.
“We would like to see these individuals find their way back into society,” said Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie. “I support basic workforce training, but I cannot support giving them a free ride for a college degree.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said the state’s priority should be making higher education “more affordable for students and their families – not criminals.”
“Too many hardworking New Yorkers are working second and even third jobs to pay for college, or they are being forced to take on massive student loan debt,” Santabarbara said.
The plan would cost taxpayers $5,000 annually for each inmate, according to the governor’s office. It costs about $60,000 a year to house an inmate in prison.
Cuomo said providing prisoners with a college education would decrease the likelihood that they return to prison and therefore save tax dollars on incarceration costs.
“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Cuomo said in a news release Saturday. “New York State currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40 percent chance of ending up back behind bars.”
The initiative would give inmates the option to complete an associates or bachelor’s degree. The program would be implemented at 10 prisons in each region of the state. The state plans to issue a Request for Proposal starting March 3.
There are programs in the state, including in Dutchess and Westchester counties, that provide prisoners with an education, but do not receive any government funding. Cornell University, in partnership with Cayuga Community College, provides a free college education for inmates in Auburn and Cayuga state prisons using grants.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he does not support Cuomo’s proposal because of the issues currently facing the state’s education system. He said school districts are underfunded, which leads to children not being properly educated and more likely to go to prison.
“We should be funding the school districts and preventing people from going to prison,” Steck said. “The governor is going about this the wrong way. We should provide money at the front end, not the back end.”
Steck stressed that it’s difficult for many middle class families to afford the high cost of both public and private colleges. The average college graduate in New York has about $27,000 in student loan debt.
“We need to address the issue of student loan debt before providing prisoners with a free college education,” he said. “It’s unfair and unreasonable to make the middle class pay for educating prisoners when they’re struggling to pay themselves.”
Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Melrose, launched an online petition in response to the initiative called KidsBeforeCons, which he said has already received more than 400 signatures.
The local lawmakers said residents in their districts have also expressed concerns about the program, arguing that the initiative is unfair because they cannot afford to send their children to college.
“A number of my constituents have called me concerned about this plan,” said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville. “Before we give a college education to people that break the law, I think we should provide more scholarships to students in the state that want to go to college.”
Tedisco said he believes the initiative is rewarding bad behavior and would not be successful in preventing prisoners from spending less time behind bars.
“They broke the law and now they get a free education. I would call that a reward,” he said. “Many prisoners don’t have the grades to even compete with law-abiding citizens when it comes to higher education. We should reinforce good behavior, not bad behavior.”
Samuel Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Center for Employment Opportunities, said in a statement Wednesday that Cuomo’s program would help inmates coming out of prison find jobs and provide them with a chance to succeed.
But Tedisco said he is concerned that those former prisoners would compete directly with state residents who paid for their education. Lopez agreed and said it would be unfair to provide them with “a free ride.”
“It took me 16 years to pay off my loans, and I viewed that as an investment to seek professional employment," Lopez said. "All this does is create resentment within the community where people are taking out massive loans and working multiple jobs to support their higher education."