Do convicts deserve a degree?

New York Gov. Cuomo’s plan to offer inmates a college education is a solid step toward combatting systematic inequality.

Luis Ruuska

Although the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, with nearly 1.6 million Americans behind bars in 2012.

These Americans remain one of the most uneducated groups in the country. Approximately 23 percent of inmates have a GED or high school diploma, and only about 13 percent have some form of postsecondary education.

Many states offer ways for prisoners to acquire high school diplomas or GEDs while incarcerated, but fewer offer postsecondary options.

Allowing inmates to access higher education has become a personal mission of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced a new initiative to make college classes available in New York prisons last week.

The program would offer both associate and bachelor’s degrees. It would cost approximately $5,000 per inmate per year, and degrees would take two and a half to three years to complete.

Cuomo’s primary objective is to lower the state’s rearrest rate, which currently sits at 40 percent.

The program will add to the $60,000 that New York already spends on each inmate. But if it’s successful, taxpayers will pay less toward prisons overall because there will be fewer prisoners returning over time.

Unsurprisingly, Cuomo’s plan has its share of criticism.

Taxpayers can hardly pay for their own education, critics say, so why should they pay for the education of a convicted criminal?

Others have gone so far as to say this plan incentivizes incarceration because convicts know there’s a free education waiting for them.

However, I believe Cuomo’s initiative is a significant step toward tackling the systematic inequality that has arisen from the country’s prison culture.

 Low-risk drug offenders make up nearly 500,000 of the total inmate population in the U.S.

Although many of these prisoners pose little public threat, mandatory minimum drug sentences have incarcerated many with sentences that are vastly disproportionate to the crime.

Of these low-level offenders, the system disproportionally convicts black and Hispanic men, despite the fact that drug crime rates and use among other racial groups are comparable.

This racial disparity has created a culture that systematically denies minorities access to higher education while in prison. This leads to the seemingly endless cycle of returning criminals in New York and other states.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this program or a college education can deter criminal behavior once inmates leave prison.

However, it gives inmates a chance at success. It gives them more than just the clothes on their back to work with upon release.

Ultimately, this program’s success will rest heavily on the shoulders of its beneficiaries. Their choices upon release will speak volumes about the program’s success or failure in preventing recidivism.

Other state leaders would do well to keep an eye on Cuomo’s initiative, because if it proves successful, then it may just be one of the ways to end the prison culture that has pervaded the U.S. for far too long.