David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

When the 1994 Federal Crime Bill was passed, it included $16 billion for prison construction and expansion of law enforcement, paving the way for a punitive shift in U.S. urban policy. It also ended Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison. 

A year later, led by then-Governor George Pataki, New York followed suit with its own ban on Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grant eligibility for incarcerated persons. The move reflected a cynical exploiting of the prevailing “Tough on Crime” national trend that elevated investment in more prosecution, prisons and punishment over the more difficult work of addressing poverty, structural racism and inequality. It was also based on the false argument leveled by some lawmakers at the time that incarcerated individuals were receiving tuition assistance at the expense of “law abiding citizens” who could not afford to send their children to college. 

Fortunately, New York is finally putting an end to this ill-conceived ban. 

The state’s new budget enacted this past week restores TAP funding eligibility after a 26-year moratorium. For thousands of individuals incarcerated it means a chance to apply for and access TAP to fund post-secondary education. It means a chance to engage in programming that will expand their horizons and their futures. 

We should all know by now that making higher education available to people in prison pays off in reduced recidivism rates, savings on the costs of incarceration for taxpayers, safer communities and greatly enhanced employment opportunities for individuals able to participate in these programs to earn a degree. It’s one of the best investments we can make to help incarcerated persons better prepare themselves to compete for work in a fiercely competitive, post-pandemic job market that continues to prize a college education. 

“As someone who has visited students enrolled in these programs at Green Haven Correctional Facility and other places, I can tell you that the students are fully engaged, remarkable individuals who are giving 110 percent effort,” said Bronx Assemblymember Kenny Burgos, who advocated for TAP restoration in the budget. “This is an investment in people that transcends the prison system. It will have an impact on families, incomes, crime reduction, you name it.”

According to Burgos, $5 million has been set aside in the FY 23 state budget to fund TAP grants for incarcerated students. 

The sad reality of the world we live in is that punishment-impacted persons are pushed to the margins of society well beyond their time served in prison. Indeed, because conviction records are indelible, punishment often follows individuals their entire lives. The stigma associated with imprisonment affects every aspect of a person’s life, curtailing a person’s ability to obtain housing, licenses to practice trades, jobs, education and the possibility of family reunification. For these reasons, empowering and assisting people in prison to get an education is a fundamental part of equipping them with the skills they will need to be productive and successful outside prison walls. 

Albany’s Unfinished Business – Clean Slate Legislation

Governor Hochul and the State Legislature deserve praise for restoring TAP eligibility for incarcerated persons in the state budget. But another important item was left on the table: passage of broad automatic conviction records sealing legislation known as Clean Slate NY. The governor announced her support for Clean Slate in her January “State of State” address, but negotiations broke down when she insisted on an implementation timetable that would have delayed relief for years. 

However, at last week’s post-budget press conference, Governor Hochul raised hopes that differences could be overcome by reiterating her support for records clearance and pledging to work with legislative leaders to get Clean Slate done before the end of the legislative session in June. 

For the last six years, the Community Service Society has been among the leaders of a broad coalition of  business notables, labor and faith leaders, legal advocates and legislators calling for the passage of legislation directing New York’s courts and record repositories to automatically expunge criminal records – both misdemeanors and felonies – after time has passed. It’s crucial that we end the perpetual punishment of 2.3 million New Yorkers with criminal convictions which keeps so many from accessing life essentials like employment and housing. 

Clean Slate legislation is a matter of fairness first and foremost, but also a matter of common sense: while repairing past harms, Clean Slate is also a jobs bill, one that we should all support. Bringing down barriers to New Yorkers gaining a foothold in the economy, contributing to the tax base and helping push our recovery from pandemic-related damage is in New York’s economic best interests. We are going to need everyone to participate in the workforce if we are to return New York to a functioning, vibrant place to work and do business, and to make it a place where people want to live and raise families.

In New York we like to call ourselves a progressive state. Let’s prove it by making 2022 the year we pass this vital legislation. David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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