High Attrition Rates, Difficulties For Convicted Felon New Paltz Applicants

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SUNY New Paltz’s felony application attrition rate is 81.1 percent, as reported in a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives.

The felony attrition rate refers to the number of applicants who check the “yes” box on their college application when asked if they have ever been convicted of a felony, but do not complete the subsequent steps required of them for acceptance.

The study, entitled “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition,” looks at the application attrition rates of 30 SUNY institutions. The SUNY system requires that all SUNY schools ask potential students on the application if they have received a felony conviction.  According to the study, each university then determines what documentation they will require from the applicant for further review as a potential student. If a student obtains these documents, they are then often required to go in front of a review committee that assesses their potential as a future student.

“The supplemental documents and information required by SUNY campuses are so discouraging and onerous that many people are driven out of the application process. While the supplemental process is not uniform across the SUNY system, every campus asks the felony conviction question and then further scrutinizes the background of the applicants who disclose a felony,” according the study’s executive summary.

Within the 85-page report, the Center for Community Alternatives estimates that each year, approximately 2,924 SUNY applicants disclose in their application that they have had a felony conviction. Of these applicants, 1,828 do not complete the application process. The result is a mean attrition rate of 62.5 percent.

With only 18.9 percent of felony-convicted SUNY New Paltz applicants finishing their application process in full, New Paltz surpasses the mean and ranks number three in highest recorded attrition rate in the study behind SUNY Potsdam (98 percent) and SUNY Binghamton (91.4 percent).

The Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that promotes reintegrative justice and a deduced reliance on incarceration, conducted the report as a follow up study on a national study they created in 2010, said Alan Rosenthal, director of justice strategies at the center and lead author of the report. The report is the first of its kind to look at these rates within a major public university system.

“In our previous study, we wanted to look at the extent to which criminal history screening was occurring at colleges across the country,” he said. “What we found from that study was that 55 percent of all colleges and universities were doing some type of screening. That was alarming because I don’t think anyone in the U.S. was aware it has taken such a strong foothold.”

Dr. Alexandra Cox, sociology professor at SUNY New Paltz and Brookwood Secure Center juvenile facility teacher, said the current lack of cohesion between New York State universities and prisons is interesting in light of the connection these two institutions once had, specifically at SUNY New Paltz.

A college sociology program run through SUNY New Paltz was offered at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch and many students from that program attended SUNY New Paltz upon their release, Cox said. In 1994, the federal government cut funding for education in prisons and the program was removed from the facility.

The study used the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) — which requires state agencies to provide records and data upon request — to collect university policy and admission rates. The data collection requested the school’s policy and procedure of felony history screening, as well as five years of recent acceptance information. Many schools said that they did not keep that type of information on record in their data bases, Rosenthal said, and therefore could not be included in the study.

While SUNY New Paltz boasts a 0 percent rejection rate of felony applicants, Rosenthal said this is a result of the few application candidates that truly have an opportunity to be reviewed due to the high attrition rates resulting from unreasonable standards. Rosenthal said the type of information SUNY schools are requesting of an individual once they reveal they had a felony conviction is “rigorous, verging on the absurd.”

SUNY New Paltz’s, he said, were ludicrous.

“If [high attrition rates] are not because of these requirements, how do you explain how schools like Stony Brook only have a 38 percent attrition rate,” Rosenthal said. “At New Paltz, one of the things they are asked to provide is a letter from the administrator of the last prison they were in. Pretty much everyone who has been to prison knows that is not going to happen. The superintendent of a prison would never take the time, or even know me, on a personal level. A letter from a prison psychologist? What if you didn’t see a psychologist? They then want a report from ‘a parole board/officer.’ So you want a report from one, or the other, or both? You’re certainly not going to get anything from the parole board. It’s simply not realistic.”

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian said he does not believe the study’s data illustrates an accurate picture of why these felony-convicted applicants are not finishing their application to the fullest extent.

“One of the areas that I know has been a source of confusion is the interpretation based on convicted felons not completing their application for admission to SUNY New Paltz,” Christian said. “We have lots of students who are not felons that don’t complete their application for admission. So you really want to be careful on how you interpret.”

New Paltz’s Ex-Offender Admissions Review Committee Chair, Tonda Highley, spoke similarly.

“I don’t know if [the attrition rate of felony applicants] is 81 percent. I don’t know the percentage and I don’t know why they don’t follow through. I can’t answer that,” Highley said.

In its coverage of the study, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news source covering America’s judicial system, underscored the fact that while the mean attrition rate is 62.5 percent — or two out of three — among SUNY applicants with a felony criminal record, the application attrition rate is only one out of five for those without a felony conviction, or those who only needed to complete the general application.

Compared to the attrition rate of those with felony convictions, SUNY New Paltz’s general application attrition rate is 4.7 percent.

Nineteen-year-old James [name changed due to youthful offender status], a student at Brookwood taking classes through Columbia-Greene Community College’s program there, is currently in the process of applying to SUNY New Paltz after checking “yes.”

“When I saw that question I felt like I already had a disadvantage,” he said. “Then they sent me a letter, and then another letter, and I have to hand in all these things I can’t get. There’s no way to get them. I wanted to give up, but I’m not.”

James, who wants to study computer technology and engineering, said he applied other places, but New Paltz is his number one choice. When asked how he feels about going in front of a review committee, he seemed bewildered.

“I didn’t know I had to go in front of a review committee. They didn’t say that,” he said. After a pause, he shrugged. “I have to go in front of a committee before I get out of here anyway. It will be practice.”

Highley said that contrary to what the study suggests, SUNY New Paltz requirements of felony applicants are on par with SUNY guidelines.

The SUNY system lists the required policy of all SUNY schools toward applicants with felony convictions in document number 3300, Admission of Persons with Prior Felony Convictions or Disciplinary Dismissals. In the document summary, it requires “applicants for admission as undergraduates and graduate students to report whether they have been convicted of a felony or have been dismissed from an institution of higher education for disciplinary reasons. Applications from such candidates must be reviewed by a campus committee.”

Within the policy itself, it is required that “the University-wide application for undergraduate admission to campuses of the University contains a question regarding whether the applicant previously has been convicted of a felony or dismissal from an institution of higher education for disciplinary reasons. It is the policy of the University that such a question be included in applications for both undergraduate and graduate admissions, full-time and part-time, by campuses processing local applications or not participating in the Application Service Center (ASC).”

In reference to the document’s policy on the review committee, the policy cites New York State Corrections Law [Sections 750, 752 and 753], which forbids discrimination against individuals previously convicted of criminal offenses, but states that the university counsel advises that the law allows an institution to deny admission to an applicant based on prior criminal convictions where such admission would involve an unreasonable risk to property or would pose a risk to the safety or welfare of an individual or the general public.

It goes on to say that campus policy should include “procuring appropriate information related to previous criminal and incarceration records and obtaining recommendations from corrections officials and, at times, current employment or educational supervisors.” The policy states that the committee is able to request the applicant to provide the specifics of the felony conviction or disciplinary dismissal, such as criminal background, charges filed and date of occurrence. Records that must be included, however, are references from the Department of Correctional Services, Division of Parole, including the name and addresses of parole officers for further questioning and possible conditions of parole, as well as a personal interview to either clarify or verify information.

According to SUNY New Paltz spokesperson Melissa Kaczmarek, candidates for admission who have indicated that they have been convicted of a felony are asked to provide the following information/documentation: a copy of their full criminal record (convictions, dates, etc.) that each applicant is to obtain from Department of Criminal Justice Services and a report from the parole officer/board and/or probation officer if the applicant is on parole or probation. Kaczmarek said a report from the prison psychologist may be asked for, but not in all cases. Highley also included that they try to obtain some documentation that speaks to what the applicant has been doing since they were released from prison; schooling, working, etc.

Finally, the applicant must go through a personal interview with the Ex-Offender Admissions Review Committee.

This committee consists of the Chief of University Police, Dean of Students, and the Directors of Student Counseling, Student Health Services, Residence Life and the Career Resource Center.

The study uses anecdotal references of real SUNY applicants who have gone through the application process as a convicted felon. Adrien Cadwallader applied to SUNY New Paltz in 2014.

He states in his account that he was required to provide a full criminal record, a report from a prison administrator that included a quote about his behavior, a report from the prison psychologist,  a report from the parole officer/board and proof of a permanent residence since release.

“I felt like I was being set up to fail,” Cadwallader said in the study. He obtained the closest documentation or alternative documentation he could obtain and was given an appearance in front of the Ex-Offender Admissions Review Committee. Coming out of the interview, he said he felt “hurt, insulted and humiliated” by the questions that were asked.

“I always have a conversation with anyone who is seriously wanting to take care of this so that they can go to college. There’s probably no one that I don’t talk to at least a few times as they go through the process, trying to work out and help them get what they need to get in order so we can meet with them to move the thing along,” Highley said. “If they are denied, they’re given a reason as to why.”

Cadwallader, after being asked to provide further documentation after the interview, was denied admission to SUNY New Paltz. Cadwallader received no reason for the denial, aside from being told that SUNY New Paltz “is very competitive.” Within his previous college program through Sienna College, he had a 4.0.

When the committee does approve an applicant, Highley writes the committee’s decision into a letter, which gets approved or denied by Vice President of Student Affairs, David Rooney.

“The study has brought to light that our procedures may be requesting information our applicants might find hard to produce,” Rooney said.

Highley, however, said the required documentation is necessary “to have some sort of knowledge before they come in for the interview.”

“We’re very different, for example, than Empire State,” Christian said. “They’re not a residential campus. They have students taking courses online, staying at home. We’re a residential campus, so we pay careful attention to campus safety considerations. And that’s the balance in this whole process: how do we provide opportunity for people who have paid their debt to society to integrate into society and get educational access while at the same time [ensuring] we’re protected and paying attention to the campus environment.”

Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link, a program that supports and coordinates higher education in prisons, said that these worries are invalid.

“The students who have been in prison, and get out of prison and go to college, are the ones that don’t get into trouble on campus,” said Pica, who was convicted of a felony as a juvenile. “They are staying away from the elements that they know from their history that will lead to bad things.”

The Center for Community Alternatives states there is no evidence that criminal history screening makes campuses safer. The study cites Cleary Act data, which stated four-year SUNY colleges had reported a total number of 31 robberies and 45 aggravated assaults in 2013, with zero homicides. There was no reported information to identify any evidence that these crimes were committed by students with criminal records, according to the study. During the 2013-14 academic year, there were 238 sexual assault complaints filed by four-year SUNY schools. There was no evidence that illustrates these crimes were committed by students with criminal history records.

Mary Donnelly, academic coordinator for Sullivan Correctional Facility and Taconic Correctional Facility, said suchconcern is not often relevant, because students do not want to be put back in a residential situation — most would be part time and focusing on reuniting with their families.

“We have a lot of women from this area [in Taconic]. Without the ability to come to a college such as New Paltz, they’re right back where they started. That box is not helping anybody, its actually hurting them more than anything,” Donnelly said. “My experience with SUNY schools has not been very good. They’re just asking for a chance.”

“If that’s how they interpret something being harder to get in — yeah, it’s an extra step, but that extra step was generated based on their own decisions, and what circumstances got them to have to check that box,” Highley said.

Onaje Benjamin said the box that he had to check while applying to Fordham University is not just a box, but a major barrier.

“It’s discrimination,” he said. “This is not about safety. All of these policies, there is not one iota of evidence that having a formerly incarcerated person on a campus is a danger.”

Despite these obstacles, the 65-year-old recently graduated from Fordham’s Graduate School of Human Services with a 4.0 and a double major in Social Work and Social Justice Centered Counseling & Program Development/Administration. He works in the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office in the Jail Division as a RESTART Program Coordinator, assisting with counseling, reentry and discharge plans of inmates.

“I work at a correctional facility, so I know,” Benjamin said. “The most significant color someone can have isn’t black or white, it’s orange. I do believe formerly incarcerated people are the most discriminated people in this country.”