04/16/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Bringing Rehabilitation Back to Prisons


In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo has a crazy idea: Let's put policies into effect that will help lower the recidivism rate of prison inmates. Specifically, the governor wants to extend a program that gives free college education to inmates so that they're more employable once they're released from prison. Naturally, those who consider themselves tough on crime, but in reality are just high on vengeance, are in a tizzy because heaven forbid we stop the cycle of incarceration. Apparently, the cost is just too much to bear, especially compared to the rock bottom rates we're paying for visitors at the Riker's Chalet. In reality, the cost of reincarceration versus the cost of education on a per inmate basis is about six times higher. Saving money and cutting unemployment, sign me up!

The idea is a very simple one. Post-incarceration employment significantly reduces the rate of recidivism among inmates and since they're out of the work force for the duration of their stay, and because there isn't a booming private sector license plate market, they're very disadvantaged in an increasingly competitive job market. What's always good to cure those unemployment blues? Education! The unemployment drops 50 percent if you have a bachelor's degree opposed to a high school degree and the rate of recidivism drops 43 percent. Forty-three percent! We're talking billions in possible savings. Sure, there will still be the stigma of hiring an ex-convict but I'm willing to bet a college degree or vocational training and a developed skill set will offset a lot of the anxiety of hiring Brian Earl Spillner who just did a nickel for boosting cars. And with the proper degree targeting, ex-convicts could have a competitive advantage as schools are increasingly failing to produce graduates for in-demand fields. North Dakota needs oil and gas engineers; they're not going to care that your degree is from University of Sing Sing, not University of Phoenix.

This won't only give ex-convicts employment; it will give them an anchor to society. One of the biggest issues with ex-convicts is that they are released and are in the exact same situation they were that led them to being locked up. They're marginalized by society and now carry the stigma of being incarcerated. A college degree won't change all of that, but it's a great start. Not only will they get paid for non-criminal work, they'll also meet people who are also not in the criminal world. One thing that has always shocked me is releasing inmates into the same neighborhood they lived in before they got locked up. Here, we'd be giving inmates a metaphorical gun that will travel, ideally away from whatever group was dragging them into illicit activities. Rather than being on the outskirts of society, they would feel like contributing members with something to lose and a sense of belonging to the community. The recidivism rate is between 40-60 percent, clearly we're failing at correcting behavior through incarceration, most likely because we do approximately zero to give inmates a chance on the outside.

As Governor Cuomo said, let's talk self-interest. Nationwide, we spend nearly $50 billion on incarceration. In New York City, we pay $168,000 per inmate per year to incarcerate them. That's insane. If we cut the incarceration rate by a quarter, we could start buying 3,000 people a brand new Mercedes each year -- or health insurance if you're into that kind of thing. There are about 2 million people incarcerate right now. Of that population, roughly 800,000 will be reincarcerated within three years of release. Windham County Texas found an 18 percent drop of in recidivism between inmates with a fourth grade education to those with a ninth grade education. Imagine what a college education will do. Using that 18 percent figure which is a low number, that would results in 164,000 fewer inmates being reincarcerated, or about 5 percent of the entire prison population. For the couple thousand dollars it will cost per inmate, no amount of Republican belly aching about rewarding felons, which is a ludicrous notion, should stop a nationwide movement towards educating prison inmates and dropping recidivism rates.