Schiraldi: Educating prisoners improves public safety

Penal law books inside the City Jail in

Penal law books inside the City Jail in Yonkers. (May 7, 2013) (Credit: Lili Holzer-Glier)

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There's increasing evidence pointing to the simple truth that to meaningfully reduce crime while saving taxpayers money, we must improve access to education for those who have run afoul of the law.

Let's begin with a few facts:

New York State spends $60,000 annually on every prisoner.

40 percent of NYC parolees end up back in prison, costing taxpayers even more.

According to the RAND Corp., inmates across the country who participate in education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don't. Every dollar invested in prison education returns $4 to $5 in savings.

This is particularly true for African-American men, who are disproportionately incarcerated. Nearly two-thirds of African-American men who drop out of high school end up in prison, compared with 18 percent of those who graduate high school, and 8 percent of those with some college education.

The game-changing nature of a college degree has prompted action in New York City and Albany.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently unveiled a statewide initiative to provide inmates in 10 state prisons with a chance to go to college.

Following his announcement, several elected officials questioned the wisdom of helping prisoners get a degree while law-abiding New Yorkers struggle to pay for college. Their concern is understandable, but shortsighted.

Yes, we should work to provide every young person with a fair shot at attending college. But one of government's fundamental duties is ensuring the safety of its citizens. Education is a highly effective tool for reducing crime by former inmates. If we want to be tough on crime, we must focus on what works.

NYC's probation department recently launched a program to help 150 young people on probation enroll in college. As part of the Clinton Global Initiative -- President Bill Clinton's nonprofit -- we are working with organizations across the city to steer people on probation away from crime and toward higher education.

These city and state initiatives are good for all New Yorkers. They make streets safer, save tax dollars and break the cycle of crime.

Vincent Schiraldi is commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation.

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