New York Governor’s Plan for Prison Education Might Make It This Time

By Christopher Zoukis

prison education new york

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is continuing his call for college courses to be offered to inmates in New York prisons. Part of the governor’s ‘Right Priorities’ criminal justice initiatives, the proposal for college classes for inmates resembles a plan Cuomo proposed in 2014, only to abandon six weeks later in the face of opposition from state Senate budgeteers.

During that ill-fated effort, opponents ridiculed the governor’s plan as designed to set up a so-called ‘Attica University’ and in response drafted bills with short titles like ‘Kids before Cons’. But the governor has revived and revised his proposal this year, and included it in his annual “State of the State” address, delivered earlier this year.

Despite his short-lived proposal two years ago, there are reasons to think that this time his educational plan might advance, and other reforms of the state’s corrections system may make it into the budget the governor and the legislature will have to hammer out over the next couple months.

One considerable factor is the increasing financial burden that steadily-growing prison populations place on state budgets. That’s a major part of why states as disparate as Alaska, California, Georgia and Nebraska are pushing various ways – among them, drug rehabilitation programs, de-criminalizing relatively minor offenses or diverting them into drug courts, probation and other alternatives, and putting new emphasis on education and training – to hold down corrections spending.

There’s also an increasing recognition of education’s role in reducing recidivism, which can not only help rebuild lives, but also reduce outlays for jails and prisons. According to Cuomo’s figures, prisoners who participate in higher education are about half as likely to re-offend within a three-year period, as are prisoners who do not get such education.

Another potential difference this year vs. 2014, the New York governor was previously asking for state legislators to increase state spending, although modestly, for educational programs for prisoners. That opened his proposal to objections by opponents that state funds ought to be used to benefit ordinary, law-biding citizens, rather than convicts.

This time, however, Cuomo will rely on executive action, and get his new educational plan off the ground without having to draw on state funds. That’s because he’ll be able to use millions from accumulated penalties the Manhattan district attorney’s office has collected, especially from financial firms facing charges of wrongdoing, and to match it with an equal amount donated by non-profits, primarily foundations.

The obvious, and likely correct, political calculation here appears to be that New York’s taxpayers are more likely to object to free education for prisoners while they scrape and save to pay for their own kids' tuition bills.

So while legislators will still have to approve Cuomo’s plans for higher education for prisoners for that praiseworthy initiative to take effect, there’s far more reason to be optimistic this year that will actually happen.

This blog is part two of a series on Gov. Cuomo’s education initiatives. You can read part one here.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com