Lawmakers blast taxpayer-funded perks for prisoners
by Christian W. Peck
Public Information Officer
Niagara County Public Information Office
Niagara County lawmakers were outraged Tuesday night at plans by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to give taxpayer-funded college degrees to hardened criminals doing time in New York's prisons - and became the first county in the state to go on the record opposing the prison perk.
In a rare show of bipartisan anger at the Democratic governor, county legislators unanimously passed a resolution that opposed Cuomo's college-for-criminals scheme and called on the New York State Legislature to block it. The resolution was sponsored by every single member of the County Legislature's Republican and Democratic caucuses.
"Making New York's taxpayers - many of whom have worked long and hard at difficult jobs to pay for their own and their children's educations - pay so that murderers and rapists and other felons can receive college degrees isn't simply wrong. It's ludicrous," Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, told colleagues.
The resolution - authored by Updegrove - came in response to remarks by Cuomo on Sunday announcing he would seek to impose a college-for-criminals program that he estimates will cost taxpayers $5,000 per inmate.
Cuomo announced the radical program at the annual meeting of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in Albany. The program is expected to be tucked into Cuomo's budget proposal to the state legislature.
"Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life," Cuomo told assembled members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
"That's something that the victims of murderers don't get," Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, said after being informed of Cuomo's remarks.
Syracuse went on to say that "murders, rapists and thieves shouldn't get benefits that hard-working kids, the people going to church on Sunday, the wonderful kids in our armed forces" don't receive.
Roughly half of the County Legislature's members spoke out Tuesday night, blasting Cuomo's college-for-criminals scheme. The resolution lawmakers voted on was somewhat unique, as it was introduced after last week's normal shutoff for new legislation ahead of Tuesday night's meeting. Under the rules of the Legislature, both the majority and minority leaders must agree to allow "late" resolutions onto the meeting agenda.
Updegrove drafted the resolution Monday after hearing of Cuomo's plans, but needed the support of the Legislature's Democratic minority - members of Cuomo's party - to vote on the matter Tuesday.
"The bipartisan opposition to the governor's ill-conceived plans should send a very clear message," said Legislator Tony Nemi, R-Lockport. "I just hope that Mr. Cuomo is listening."
Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, who earlier Tuesday contacted Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, to register his opposition to Cuomo's college-for-criminals scheme, said watching his own family members work hard at jobs to pay for school weighed heavily on him.
"There are no jobs in this state under this governor," Burmaster said. "You almost wonder if they would be better off robbing a 7-11 for the educational benefits."
Freshman lawmaker Randy R. Bradt, I-North Tonawanda, agreed: "The purpose of prison is supposed to be punishment. This is giving them a reward."
Tuesday night's most dramatic moment came with remarks by Legislator Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, who was angered by Cuomo's "disregard for the victims."
McNall recounted how, nearly three years ago, county lawmakers passed a resolution asking Cuomo to fire Gladys Carrion, his then-commissioner of Children and Family Services. Carrion was heavily criticized by county lawmakers and the governments of both the city and town of Lockport for her refusal to implement needed reforms that would have strengthened supervision and incarceration programs for youths and young adults in the wake of the murder of Lockport halfway-house worker Renee Greco.
The 24-year-old Greco was bludgeoned to death by group home residents she was supervising alone. Carrion, who oversaw the state's juvenile justice system, refused to implement reforms despite revelations of wild parties at downstate detention facilities and other irregularities.
"After we passed that resolution, I sent Gov. Cuomo a letter," McNall reminded colleagues. "I tried my best to be reasonable and evenhanded and levelheaded. But, our community had just witnessed a brutal murder, and we wanted answers—and we needed results."
McNall's letter, sent March 3, 2011, garnered no response from Cuomo or his staff, despite requesting a "dialogue" with the governor.
"I never received the courtesy of a reply from the governor," McNall said. "Well, no, I take that back. I guess I got my reply on Sunday."