A College Education Of Little Use

No, this isn’t a bit of snark about the efficacy of a seat in a prestigious institution of higher learning squandered on someone who uses it to earn a baccalaureate in gender studies (irony intended).  Rather, it’s about the benevolent philanthropist and New York County District Attorney, Cy Vance, loosening his control over the purse strings of the $808 million of other people’s money. Among the causes Cy deems worthy is the college education of criminals.

It was nearly two years ago that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo floated a plan for the state to pay for college courses for inmates. But it sank in the face of withering opposition from critics who mocked Mr. Cuomo’s initiative as “Attica University” and Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation who argued that New York should put “kids before cons.”

On Sunday, however, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, reintroduced the plan through a new and seemingly less vulnerable financing mechanism, using about $7.5 million in criminal forfeiture funds from the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., whose coffers are filled with hundreds of millions of dollars in bank settlements.

Putting up $7.5 million out of this huge slush fund may not seem like much, and indeed, it’s not enough to fund the program.

An additional $7.5 million will come from private matching funds, according to the governor’s office, which hopes to offer what it calls an “integrated curriculum” to about 1,000 inmates statewide over the next five years.

This is a very controversial concept, for some obvious reason. First, because taxpayers will gripe that they have to pay for their kids’ college education because they made the mistake of raising them in such a way as to not end up in prison. Why do criminals get an education for free when law-abiding folks have to struggle to pay for it?

The argument has much surface appeal, particularly to legislators who are in constant need to be re-elected. Of course, those making the argument aren’t considering that the free-loaders have to suffer a prison sentence first, which their kids do not, and that this is money spent with a purpose, to end recidivism. It’s not just about giving prisoners an education, but saving on the cost of crime and punishment going forward.

Of course, Governor Andy Cuomo doesn’t help much with his social justice rationale:

“Prisons were not supposed to be a warehouse,” Mr. Cuomo said. “It was not supposed to be, ‘We’re going to take you and put you in a warehouse for 10 years and lock you up, and then take you out in 10 years and return you to society and think maybe you’re going to be the better for it.’”

“It was supposed to be about rehabilitation,” he added. “It was supposed to be an opportunity to help people. We lost that somewhere along the way.”

Somewhere? Howzabout every governor who cries sad tears for the victims, then demagogues about how we must end this epidemic of whatever crime du jour makes the headlines. How about your sad tears, Andy? But I digress.

Cy isn’t falling into the weepy hole, but explains how the guy with his finger on the bank account sees it.

But Mr. Vance said that expanding college programs for inmates made sense from a crime-fighting standpoint because studies had shown that inmates who earned a college degree were less likely to return to prison.

“If we don’t provide an exit strategy for ex-offenders, they are just going to be re-offenders,” Mr. Vance said. “It’s just really common sense.”

Of course it’s “just really common sense,” which never fails to appeal to the public.  And as long as we’re strolling down the path of “common sense,” lets see what exactly this means for prisoners.

Some state prisons already offer a handful of college courses, but Mr. Vance said the new initiative would expand those programs by about a third. It would also improve them so that credits could be more easily transferred to colleges outside prison walls, a problem that has bedeviled the existing system.

The proposal would offer colleges and other educational institutions up to $5,000 per student to provide a full-time course load of 30 college credits, according to the district attorney’s office. Only inmates who have a high school degree and are within two to five years of completing their sentences would be eligible. Those serving life sentences would be disqualified.

So these 1000 prisoners, out of a population of more than 53,000 (as of 2014, the last census available) over five years, will get a snippet of college education. Of course, they will still be felons forever, no matter how law-abiding they may be after release, because New York has no expungement statute.  And as felons, most employers won’t hire them for janitor, no less for a job with an office. And it’s not like they can get a college degree, but just a slice, since few colleges will have them after release, even if they could get student loans (which they can’t), they would be tolerated on campus (which they aren’t) and could afford to attend college rather than, say, eat.

Even if all this could somehow magically come together in some beneficial way, it still addresses only 1000 prisoners, a drop in the custodial bucket. While it might make even more “common sense” to offer vocational training, like plumber, electrician, carpenter or auto mechanic, where they could emerge with completed training and start their own business which might offer them a chance at success, that won’t work either if they can’t get a license, if New York won’t license ex-cons for their lack of good moral character.

And while $7.5 million of the funding comes from Cy’s slush fund (leaving a mere $800.5 million for worthier causes), the scheme sucks up $7.5 million of private money that might be used for other, more effective purposes.  So what did Cy really get for his $7.5 million?  Why, he bought himself and Andy an article in the New York Times about what great guys they are.  It was totally worth it.


12 thoughts on “A College Education Of Little Use

  1. Peter Orlowicz

    Of course, if the money for this program is coming from the DA’s criminal forfeiture fund, then it’s really still the criminals paying for it, right? Kind of a neat trick, in its way. “Sure, we confiscated your car and your life savings under your mattress after we found three joints in your garage, but we sold the car and used all the money to pay for your English 101 course, isn’t that great?”

    1. SHG Post author

      Had the “forfeiture” giving rise to Cy’s slush fund come from such banal sources, you would be absolutely right. But this? This is a special slush fund.

      Mr. Vance has secured a windfall of $808 million from criminal penalties against three international banks accused of violating United States sanctions — HSBC, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas.

      That’s not to say there weren’t a few joints in their respective garages, but it takes a lot of nickel bags to get to $808 million.

      1. Peter Orlowicz

        It’s almost like you include links in your blog to better inform people who really ought to read them for context, rather than just for your own edification. Derp.

  2. EH

    While it might make even more “common sense” to offer vocational training, like plumber, electrician, carpenter or auto mechanic, where they could emerge with completed training and start their own business which might offer them a chance at success, that won’t work either if they can’t get a license, if New York won’t license ex-cons for their lack of good moral character.
    This is the part which really tweaks me. Like you said, there is a TON of useful stuff which we could teach someone, much of which would probably be more effective. Graduating someone who needs to go back to school right away in order to finish a degree seems less productive.

    Oh well. At least it isn’t my money!

    1. SHG Post author

      Despite what our president says, I am not of the view that the only path to success is through a college education for anyone. This is particularly true for an ex-con. If they could leave prison ready to perform a trade, they could enjoy a fulfilling, successful, productive and law-abiding life. But it’s not college.

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