ALBANY, N.Y. -- Some state lawmakers Tuesday criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to use public money to fund college for prisoners.
Cuomo has faced opposition to his proposal announced Sunday to spend up to $5,000 an inmate to help them achieve a college degree. Cuomo said the program would cut down on recidivism and ultimately lower the roughly $60,000 a year it costs to house a prisoner.
Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, was among senators Tuesday to announce a petition drive to block the initiative. He and other opponents, including Republican Sen. George Maziarz of Niagara County, said the state shouldn't be using public money for prisoners at a time when residents are struggling to pay for college education for themselves or their children.
Dr. Gary Olson spoke with Two On Your Side photojournalist Dave Harrington about the plan on Tuesday.
"In a world of finite resources, where we are struggling to find funding for education for our kids, the last thing New York state should be funding is college tuition for convicts," Ball said in a statement.
Ball said he has proposed legislation that would establish a state income-tax deduction on student loan payments.
It's unclear how much Cuomo's program would cost and how it would impact several partnerships around the state where colleges work with non-profit groups to provide college courses to prisoners.
Cuomo said the program would start at 10 prisons, and colleges would apply to participate next month. Cuomo expects to include the proposal in his amended budget plan later this week. He proposed a $137 billion spending plan Jan. 21.
New York's recidivism rate was about 40 percent, compared to a 43 percent average nationwide, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, a national group in Washington D.C.
Cuomo, who made the announcement during Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus weekend at the Capitol, said the state's inmate population is 49 percent African American, 24 percent Hispanic and 24 percent white.
"Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime," Cuomo said in Sunday's statement.
Other lawmakers also knocked the proposal.
"Our students face out-of-control costs and crushing debt if they decide to pursue a degree -- hardworking families need help going to college, not prison inmates," said Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, Orange County.
New York has a number of privately-funded programs to provide college education to prisoners. The programs flourished after federal and state governments in the early 1990s decided to end tuition-assistance programs for prisoners, organizers said.
Some organizers supported Cuomo's plans.
New York's prison population has fallen from a peak of 72,600 in 1999 to about 54,200 – the lowest level in more than two decades and due in part to loosened laws for drug crimes. The state has closed nine prisons in recent years and has 58 facilities.
"An education, a job with steady income, health care and solid family connections are the ingredients needed for those in the criminal justice system to transform their lives and contribute to their families and communities," Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of The Osborne Association, which runs jail programs in New York City and Poughkeepsie, said in a statement.
Cornell University started the Cornell Prison Education Program in 1998 and provides free tuition in conjunction with Cayuga Community College at the Auburn and Cayuga state prisons. The college funds the program through a $180,000 a year grant through a foundation started by Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire Warren Buffett.
The program offers a "humane, comparatively cheap and effective alternative to the discipline-and-punish approach that all too often breeds only hopelessness and recidivism," Cornell President David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler, the college's vice president for university relations, wrote in a Forbes column last March.
The Bard Prison Initiative in Dutchess County started in 1999 and provides college education to students by working with Bard College, local prisons and private donors. It has 275 students enrolled.
Hudson Link, based at Mercy College in Ossining, Westchester County, started a similar program in 1998. It has graduated 303 students and has another 334 currently enrolled in about a half-dozen colleges in the region.
Sean Pica runs the program and earned his college degree at the state prison in Elmira while he served 16 years in prison for murder. Hudson Link will be the focus of an HBO documentary next month called the "University of Sing Sing." It premieres March 31.
Pica said his program has avoided questions about its funding because it doesn't receive any government money. But he backed Cuomo's proposal.
"This is not just a gift for the incarcerated men and women," Pica said. "These same folks when they get their education go back to those communities, and when they go back, how do you want them back?"
Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said prisoners should get help to avoid ending up back in jail, but the public shouldn't have to pay for it. He said the state has cut tuition-assistant programs for the middle class.
"I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer's dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education," Grisanti said in a statement.
Grisanti also said that an online petition he started Tuesday opposing the program had collected over 1,000 signatures in less than seven hours.