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Stephen Gottlieb: Prisoners And The Price Of Anger

People are angrily attacking Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to provide a college education for some prisoners in order to put them on a path toward more constructive, and law abiding, lives.

How much is anger worth? I understand the anger at funding an education for prisoners. They’re in prison because they have been adjudged guilty of a crime – some pretty minor but some pretty nasty.

According to the Vera Institute, the average cost of keeping a person in prison for one year in New York was $60,076 in Fiscal Year 2010. That number overestimates the savings we could make by reducing the number of prisoners in the short or medium term. More achievable would be savings of about $30,000 for each year that a prisoner would not have to be incarcerated. Still the cost reductions are substantial.

The Governor says educating the same prisoner costs only $5,000 – presumably per year – totaling maybe $20,000 per student. The payoff is in recidivism. If half the population takes the program and half those who take the college education stay out of prison in the future, that’s an average saving of $30,000 per year for the number of years each prisoner is not in prison and it adds up very quickly. The saved cost of incarceration minus the cost of their education would be on the order of $700 million for just the first three years of the first crop of graduates. After that, the savings would be gravy – $1.35 billion for the next three years – over $2 billion for the first six years. The savings could be much larger. New York has something over 6 million taxpayers. So that’s a saving of from $116 - 333 for the average taxpayer for just the first few years – your saving could be more or less.

These are estimates and scaling numbers up always changes things – the education can get more expensive and the prisoners may be less successful. Still it’s important to think about real numbers to understand the issue. So these are rough approximations for discussion, though they may overstate the benefits.

But my question is what’s your price of anger? Suppose we increased our estimate of the price of anger by the number of robberies, assaults and murders that we could have prevented? Or by changing our estimate of the number of years of incarceration we would save? Suppose we decreased the estimated saving by the difficulties of scaling up a program like that?

I’m sure with time we could get better numbers – perhaps some of you will help supply better numbers by responding to this commentary. But my point is a broader question: Just how much money are you willing to spend on anger? We’ve been spending much more than that to keep people in prison. Educating prisoners is just one way to reduce the cost, the budget, and the taxes for keeping people in jail. And we have to add in what economists call the opportunity costs – that is, we could spend that $2 billion on sending good kids to school with money that we would not otherwise have because we’d be spending it on incarcerating prisoners.

I understand anger. I often have it, feel it, show it. But everything has a cost. How much do we want to spend on anger as opposed to our other goals? And by the way, I assume this isn’t the only thing you’re angry about; how many of your feelings of anger are you willing to pay for – and how much?

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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