Republicans rally against Cuomo’s prison-college plan

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ALBANY—Republicans are railing against Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to fund college degree programs for prisoners, with one state senator launching a petition entitled: “Hell No to Attica University.”

“While it is understandable for the need of counseling and rehabilitation, free college tuition for prisoners is a slap in the face to hard working New Yorkers that work multiple jobs and take out exorbitant student loans to pay for the cost of higher education,” said Senator Greg Ball, a Putnam County Republican who started the petition, in a statement.

Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, started his own petition, arguing that the state should increase the availability of financial aid to traditional students before providing free college to prisoners. Grisanti wants to restore funding that would extend the state Tuition Assistance Program to graduate students.

“I believe that we should put the needs of hardworking, law-abiding citizens who are positively contributing to society first, and I will continue to fight for the reinstatement of TAP funds before I even begin to entertain the idea of supporting this program,” Grisanti said in a statement.

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Like Grisanti, Senator George Maziarz, a Republican from Niagara County, said he has heard from constituents who oppose the proposal in large numbers.

“The whole notion of rewarding bad behavior is completely backwards,” Maziarz said in the statement. “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree.’ It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.”

Assemblyman Kieran Lalor, a Hudson Valley Republican, said in a statement that the state should first reduce prison spending by 10 percent and then consider offering student loans to prisoners, not free college tuition.

“Governor Cuomo seems to be saying we already spend $60,000 yearly per prisoner, what's an extra $5,000 for his college plan. That's the wrong attitude,” Lalor said in a statement, citing estimates from the governor's office. “We should be asking why we spend so much and how we can cut it.”

Cuomo unveiled the proposal while speaking at a church service during a convention of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus on Sunday. The plan, which he said he will include as an amendment to his budget proposal, would allow inmates in 10 state prisons to earn associate's or bachelor's degrees while incarcerated. It would take two to three years to complete a degree, according to the governor's office.

Cuomo argued that the plan will help curb the state's high recidivism rate, and ultimately reduce costs for the state. The proposal is modeled after a small, privately funded program called the Bard Prison Initiative, which serves inmates at six state prisons.

The Bard program has a four percent recidivism rate, while the state's overall rate is 40 percent.

Lowering the recidivism rate would save the state money in the long term by cutting down the prison population, Cuomo argued.

Some Democratic lawmakers have come out in support of the plan.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara, who is chair of the minority caucus, said in a statement released by the governor's office that the program will give “incarcerated individuals ... a much better chance of successfully integrating back into society when they are released.” Westchester County Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson said, “A college education is a vital asset for men and women to successfully move forward with their lives after prison.”