Well educated convicts don’t return
This is in response to Mary Jo Venditti’s Jan. 16 suggestion that New York state should save free college for those more deserving. I’d like to start out by clarifying that I think anyone who shows her or himself to be academically capable and willing deserves affordable secondary education.
Our economy depends on a well-educated population and we need to look at why our college costs have gotten out of control. What bothers me about her suggestion, though, is her criteria for deserving financial aid for education, and the fact that many of her assumptions about people who are in prison are not necessarily correct.
Given limited resources, who should receive aid? Ms. Ventitti asks, “Isn’t it true that most prisoners couldn’t even make it through grade school, let alone high school, either by their own failure, their parent’s failure, the failure of the education system or a combination thereof?” If they failed at school in the past because of the education system, might we not owe them something?
But to be clear, we’re not talking about classes that are college level in name only. Prisoners taking college courses, including those who would be getting aid, face the same academic requirements as others. The classes are no less rigorous. So we are talking about financial aid for people who are equally capable.
About 48 percent of the people in prison are there for drug crimes. When I was in university in the 1970s, many of my classmates were using some sort of illegal substances and none of them ended up in prison. Additionally, the Innocence Project estimates that 2.3 percent to 5 percent of those in prison are innocent. Rounding down to 54,000 people in New York state, that is 1,242 people.
This speaks to the assertion that all people in prison are morally lacking. My point being that not being in prison is not a good indicator of who has or hasn’t committed a crime or of moral rectitude.
What about the other 52 percent who have been convicted of violent crimes? Is the purpose of prison to punish people or to change behavior? Gov. Cuomo’s proposal would not give financial aid to anyone with a life sentence. When we don’t give life sentences, we are saying that we believe those people can change their behavior and rejoin society. If that is true, it’s a process. People don’t change the minute they walk out the prison gates, they change as part of a process. Sometimes taking college classes helps them to find things of value within themselves that they couldn’t see before.
But, you might say, prisoners need to be punished for their crimes. Segregation from family and society is harsh punishment. I regularly hear people make the comment that prisoners don’t have to worry about food or shelter and get to work out in the gym every day, as if New York state prisons are like living at the YMCA.
Prisons are places where inmates are constantly in danger of being physically attacked. Training and education is frequently interrupted. Those who turn their lives around have worked hard to do so. Time spent in prison can change people for better or for worse. Don’t we want them to return as better and more productive members of society?
People who have committed a felony face many barriers when looking for work. Statistics do indeed show that our prisons are filled with repeat offenders — 76 percent after five years, most often for property offenses, rarely for violent offenses as some imagine. Often they re-offend because they were not able to get a job. Yet, see what happens when people complete college in prison. Look at Hudson Link www.hudsonlink.org/Students_Alumni/where-are-they-now. Some statistics nationwide suggest that recidivism drops by 22 percent for those who get degrees.
Our government does not have to choose only one group of people to help with a college education. Perhaps they might finance better education for all by incarcerating fewer people or keeping them in for shorter sentences like the rest of the world. It’s not a matter of us or them.
The benefit would be for us all.
Dispute over climate change delaying solutions
In his Jan. 10 letter, “Facts support natural global-warming trend,” Don Cazer, a self-proclaimed “climate analyst”, parrots three erroneous claims popular among climate deniers: that the current global temperature rise of 1°C per century is natural, that it is insignificant, and that the consensus of scientists is not important.
Evidence from ice cores reveals that Earth has oscillated (due to orbital forcing) between ice ages and “interglacial” periods, and temperature swings were ~8°C. Interglacials lasted ~12,000 years and the one we are currently in began ~11,500 years ago. So, in the absence of human-derived greenhouse gases, we should be cooling slowly (over thousands of years) into the next ice age. There is no evidence that near the end of any prior interglacial period that temperatures ever warmed at a rate of ~1°C per century.
The current CO2 [carbon dioxide] level of over 400 ppm [parts per million] is unprecedented, and, given the efficacy of atmospheric CO2 to absorb outgoing long wave radiation and warm the atmosphere, a phenomenon that was documented more than 100 years ago by Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius, it should be of no surprise that global temperatures have “come off the rails.”
The notion that a net human-induced global warming of 2°C is not significant is nonsense! This is ~25 percent of natural climate variability over the last several hundred thousand years! The 8°C warming that occurred at the end of the last ice age leveraged nearly 400 feet of sea level rise. While any additional warming will involve a slower rate of rise, 2°C warming can still generate meters of sea level rise. If this is insignificant to Mr. Cazer, then I suggest he talk to coastal homeowners caught in the path of the next tropical storm.
Lastly, Mr. Cazer claims that science is not done by consensus, but by data. Actually, it is done by applying the scientific method and publishing in peer-reviewed outlets, the gold standard of science. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Cook et al. (2013) reviewed ~12,000 peer-reviewed publications, and noted that over 97% concluded that current climate change is caused by human activities.
In addition, the organizations that represent the thousands of scientists in fields related to Earth’s climate unanimously support the assertion that greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver of ongoing climate change. These organizations include the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of America, and the American Meteorological Society, among many others.
Recently, the U.S. Defense Department warned that climate change poses a threat to national security due to the increased risks of food and water shortages, infectious disease, and resultant geopolitical unrest. The overwhelming consensus of climate scientists is backed up by decades of accumulating evidence.
The arguments repeated by Mr. Cazer could be easily disregarded if they were not also used by members of Congress, whose votes have been paid for by the fossil fuel industry, to purvey doubt and delay action for decades. This delay has made it ever more difficult and costly to mitigate the effects of ongoing warming.
Donald T. Rodbell
The writer is professor and chair of the Geology Department at Union College.