Cuomo revives plan for prisoner education

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Cuomo at the Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)
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ALBANY — On a frigid Sunday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced to a crowd of primarily black and Latino parishioners a new statewide initiative to provide college classes in state prisons.

That was 2014.

The politically polarizing plan quickly fizzled amid opposition from Republicans, who dubbed it "Attica University."

But Cuomo revived the idea at the Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem this morning, telling churchgoers that he would continue to push for a prison education plan as a preventative measure to ending the disproportionately high levels of incarceration among black men.

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“How do you stop the cycle? You actually have the right priorities,” Cuomo said from the dais. “You actually really invest in the prevention rather than paying for the problem once it manifests itself, because it’s too late.”

During his initial proposal in 2014, Cuomo said the college programs for 10 state prisons would be publicly funded, with an estimated cost of $1 million a year, drawing the ire of Republicans who argued that the funds could be better spent on education for children.

“You can tell me no, I’m accustomed to it,” Cuomo said this morning. “I’m just going to find another way to get there.”

This time, the program would be paid for with $7.5 million in criminal forfeiture funds controlled by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., combined with another $7.5 million in private donations, the New York Times reported. It’s unclear how much the revived college for inmates program will cost or how many prisons will administer college courses.

"We have estimates and there are numerous studies that have estimates," Cuomo told reporters after his remarks. "It depends on how many people you run through the model, obviously. But the additional cost is incremental on the prevention side."

The college program, Cuomo said, would be administered through the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.

The Democratic governor unveiled a seven-pronged agenda, consisting largely of policy proposals already in effect as well as some new measures he plans to push.

Reforming failing public schools in poor neighborhoods is the first preventative step to future incarceration, Cuomo said. He's proposing to invest $100 million to transform failing schools and “other high needs schools” into community schools, Cuomo announced in a press release.

He will also push for an additional $50 million increase in funding for an apprenticeship program targeted toward training young people.

“Get people a job. Get people a job. Get people a job. Get people a job,” Cuomo said. “Give them the pride, the respect, the dignity of earning their own bread. Give that to them.”

Cuomo said that the state should also look at alternatives to incarceration and should not think of prisons as a “warehouse” for individuals.

”When they’re in prison, teach them a skill. Give them an education,” he said.

Cuomo told reporters that he also plans to unveil a bail reform proposal on Wednesday.

"I don’t want to comment on the specifics yet, but we’re going to have a bail reform proposal in the State of the State because I think we can make the bail system better," said Cuomo. "I think it actually makes it harder for people who should be out on bail to be out on bail and it actually releases some people who shouldn’t be."

Mayor Bill de Blasio called for changes to state bail and diversion programs in November, after the suspect in the shooting of a police officer was found to have been in a jail diversion program.

The governor has also proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old and investing more funding in re-entry programs.

In December of 2014, following a Staten Island grand jury’s decision to not indict a police office in the choking death of Eric Garner, Cuomo promised a “soup-to-nuts” review of the criminal justice system.

In the months following, Cuomo signed an executive order appointing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor to oversee cases of police-involved civilian deaths.

In the last several months, Cuomo has continued to push criminal justice reforms, announcing that he would overhaul solitary confinement in the state, as well as conditionally pardoning individuals who committed a non-violent felony or misdemeanor at the age of 16 or 17 and have not subsequently broken any laws.

Last month, Cuomo signed an executive order removing teenagers from adult prisons in the state.

“At the end of the day success is cheaper than failure. Success is cheaper than failure,” Cuomo said. “We are talking about relatively small investments early on to keep us from spending large amounts once the problem is manifested.”