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Free education for felons: the pros and cons

Thursday, February 27, 2014
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Free education for felons: the pros and cons

I have been reading with dismay all of the angry responses to Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to offer college education to New York state inmates. Most people who are against this have paid for or are in debt because of the high cost of college education in this country. I understand their anger, but these are really two separate problems.

While much of the world pays much less or even nothing for a college degree, we have a system that is profiting from student loans, very highly paid upper management in universities, students funding sports programs that lose money and few participate in. Community colleges are the best deal going in a good, no-frills education. Anyone who needs a loan for that should pay no interest at all, and the tuition should be within reach of most.

Meanwhile, we have a hugely overpopulated and expensive prison system. I can’t give Cuomo and [Director of the Education Intelligence Agency Mike] Antonucci enough praise for being the ones who are finally trying to do something about it. Why should we offer anything but suffering to bad people who deserve to rot in prison? And what about the fact that they should be happy to have a roof over their heads, free food and a nice gym to work out in?

First of all, there is always a small percentage of people in prison who are not guilty either through false testimony, mistaken identification, or mishandling by authorities. Then we have many people who would not be in prison if they could have afforded to pay a lawyer instead of having an overworked public defender who encouraged them to take the plea rather than have a jury trial. Finally, some people in prison made a bad decision and are working hard to change.

As for people who think that prison is not so bad or even cushy — they are simply ignorant. Why not put the money into pre-K and programs that keep people out of poverty and prison in the first place. We should absolutely do that. But what about all of the people in prison right now who were on the fast track to prison via poverty. Kids whose parents could not afford to stay home and do homework with them — kids who never had enough food to be able to concentrate in school or who had to keep moving from one temporary home to another. All the angry kids who get put in classrooms for kids with social-emotional problems because they didn’t have adults with stable lives to help them.

Right now our prisons are full of those kids who grew up. Some of them have matured enough to be able to succeed. If we can help them, shouldn’t we?

Robin Schnell

Scotia

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Why does Gov. Cuomo think people who have broken the social contract required of them to be good citizens would be interested in the hard work of college? I want to ask him why he thinks that people who have had free schooling already, wherever they are in their lives, would do better with free college-level classes? The public wants details and reasons why the population who breaks society’s laws needs support for education not given their law-abiding peers.

When I worked in the Rensselaer County Jail as a transitional guide, moving people from incarceration to the job market, I spent most of my time working with the inmates to prepare them for getting out and getting back into “normal” society.

In speaking to the older inmates about the younger ones, we discussed the fact that doing the usual entry-level jobs was not at all cool. Such jobs would not give them standing in their culture. I understand that one idea of inmates going to college is to break the hold of a poor neighborhood culture and, hopefully, move these inmates out of an “in and out of jail” lifestyle. But wouldn’t the money used to “send an inmate to college” be better spent improving the poor neighborhoods that foster lawbreakers?

Wouldn’t the money spent to send one inmate to college be better spent cleaning up parks, derelict houses, offering hope to whole areas of neglected neighborhoods? I realize the college plan seems easier to do than the long-term cleanup of some neighborhoods, but if we are going to spend money to break the cycle of crime, let’s offer that plan to a larger group of needy youth, before they become criminals.

Again, the older inmates suggested that the younger ones were more interested in the quick, but dangerous means of getting money. Does Gov. Cuomo remember going to college? The steps to a degree are slowly scaled with much hard work. Wouldn’t the money he proposes to spend on college-bound inmates be better spent building the foundations and desire to learn through a universal pre-K directive or something like that?

Can’t we skip the “time in jail” aspect of helping the next generation and go to the very beginning and get them off to a good start?

Janice Walz

Scotia

Public financing of campaigns a waste

Re Feb. 21 editorial, “For public financing of elections”: When it comes to the public financing of political campaigns, the only thing that’s obvious is that it will be a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars.

The upstate New York economy continues to stagnate, even as our roads and bridges are crumbling. Giving taxpayer dollars to political candidates — effectively a blank check for their campaigns — is simply unacceptable.

There are far more important things for taxpayers to fund rather than robo calls, attack ads and political consultants.

Make no mistake — taxpayer-funded political campaigns will not end corruption in Albany. It hasn’t ended corruption in New York City. In fact, giving candidates public money has created new opportunities for corruption.

And let’s not forget the polls that show the public is opposed to taxpayer-funded political campaigns. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted last April, 58 percent of upstate New Yorkers are opposed to this proposal.

Cleaning up Albany will require sensible measures such as effective enforcement of election laws and greater transparency. But the bottom line is that giving public money to political candidates is a recipe for waste, fraud and abuse.

Brian Sampson

Rochester

The writer is executive director of the business advocacy group Unshackle Upstate.

 

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