Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



New Yorkers Deserve Answers About the State’s Nuclear Bailout

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Climate change is a serious threat to New York. With so much of the state’s population, infrastructure and economic activity crammed into the coastal communities of the New York metropolitan area, sea level rise and increasingly intense hurricane seasons spell certain disaster in the long term.

In light of this, I’m sure that I share the concerns of many New Yorkers in expressing my disgust with President Trump’s executive action aimed at dismantling Obama-era climate regulations. That’s why it’s more important than ever to take action at the state level to combat this growing threat.

New York has already developed an ambitious Clean Energy Standard with a “50 by 30” goal of generating at least 50% of New York State's electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, and reducing carbon emissions by 40% by that same year. These are important efforts that should be undertaken transparently and with the full cooperation of both government and the general public.

Sadly, that has not been the case. Last month, the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which I chair, held a joint hearing with the Committees on Energy, Consumer Affairs and Protection, and Environmental Conservation to examine state plans around nuclear power plants and utility costs for New Yorkers.

Specifically, our hearing was intended to provide New York ratepayers with the opportunity to learn more about the state’s plan to offer Zero-Emissions Credits (ZECs) to upstate nuclear power plants and the program’s potential impact on utility costs. We invited the Public Service Commission (PSC) to testify about its controversial plan to provide ZECs. However, by failing to even appear before the committees, PSC officials continue to keep ratepayers in the dark on some of the program’s most pressing and questionable aspects.

The PSC even added insult to injury by sending a letter to me and my three fellow committee chairs giving conflicting reasons for its absence. In its letter, the PSC accuses us of not giving them sufficient notice for the hearing, while simultaneously blaming pending lawsuits brought by environmental groups against the Clean Energy Standard.

This is exactly the kind of half-baked reasoning we’ve seen recently from our federal government: blame as many groups and individuals as possible and see what sticks. The simple fact is that New Yorkers deserve transparency on such a vital issue, and yet the PSC is offering us just the opposite.

The Trump comparisons don’t end there. The plan would also mandate companies under the PSC’s jurisdiction to purchase these credits to subsidize four unprofitable upstate nuclear plants, all owned by the Exelon Corporation. The cost to ratepayers is estimated to total as much as $7.6 billion over the next 12 years. This is corporate welfare, pure and simple, with downstate ratepayers footing 60% of the bill and getting zero in economic benefit. The President would be proud.

My colleagues and I continue to demand that the PSC testify on these matters, and we’re prepared to fight until we get answers to our questions: How were these plants determined to need the subsidies? What are the potential taxpayer-funded profits for this private corporation? New York ratepayers deserve to know.

It's time we shine a light on our state’s electrical network, and ensure that the term “green energy” applies to the environmental impact for our state, not the economic impact to a company’s bottom line.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D – Bronx) Chairs the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions. On Twitter @JeffreyDinowitz.

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Closing Rikers: Good Politics, Bad Policy

de blasio rikers ponte officer

Mayor de Blasio on Rikers Island (photo: Mayor's Office)

Mayor de Blasio's announcement that the city intends to close Rikers Island jails in 10 years has met a mainly celebratory response, even from seasoned criminal justice reformers. We advise that they, after years of good work in exposing the debilitating and sometimes brutal conditions in the Rikers jails, take a deep breath and apply a critical eye.

The mayor's broad plan seems at least in part based on the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and will include replacing the facilities on Rikers with small jails built in different parts of the city. The Lippman Commission pegged the estimated cost at $10.6 billion, with annual cost savings then to follow. De Blasio, who has strayed away from details so far, is simply promising the outcome of closed jail complexes on Rikers and at least a couple of new jails elsewhere.

While de Blasio may see this move as good politics in an election year when he wants to shore up his liberal base, it is bad policy. Here's why:

*The 10-year goal -- far off in any context, but in politics, a lifetime -- is hardly a serious aspirational target, especially when de Blasio, even if he wins re-election, will have been out of office for years by the time Rikers would be slated for closure. The next mayor will face the large bulk of the untoward financial or bureaucratic or political consequences of the proposal.

*Any plan to close Rikers that includes the construction of new jails is a substantive mistake. Based on the recent history of municipal capital projects here in New York, we can expect that it will take longer to construct the new jails than currently thought and that it will cost even more than than the $10.6 billion projected.

*There's no reason even to be certain that conditions of confinement will improve significantly since the new facilities will operate with the same correction officers and jail culture that, in effect, contribute directly to the deplorable environment on Rikers today. Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, whose suicide after being locked up on Rikers for three years without a trial helped spur the movement to shutter the the jails there, said: "It wasn't the walls or the conditions at Rikers that killed Kalief. It was the human beings behind the walls that abused and ultimately drove him to commit suicide."

*If city leaders choose to, they could take meaningful steps to reduce our incarcerated population even more significantly than planned, close Rikers without building new jails and house the remaining incarcerated population in the city's other existing jails.

*The most direct way of reducing the incarcerated population is by addressing the front end of the problem, namely by cutting down the number of people the city locks up in the first place for no good public safety or justice purpose. But that would mean directing the NYPD to abandon "broken windows" policing, which is the single most significant public practice factor driving the unnecessary confinement of people on Rikers, people who are not dangerous or predatory or even criminal. We know, however, that the mayor -- and his political allies -- have embraced such tactics, so there's no possibility that he'll take this critical step.

Replacing Rikers with new jails sited in different neighborhoods around the city will do next to nothing to end the abusive and discriminatory practices of our criminal justice system. The NYPD will continue to arrest and district attorneys will continue to prosecute the same people, mainly low-income New Yorkers of color, and, in effect, continue to lock up the most politically vulnerable people in our city even when all they have done is engage in innocuous activities that have been virtually decriminalized in well-off white neighborhoods.

De Blasio pulled off a similar policy flim-flam when he, along with former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, oversaw a dramatic drop in the NYPD's use of the discredited stop-and-frisk tactic. Problem is that, under the leadership of these two men, the NYPD did not change its fundamental approach to law enforcement, namely abusive and discriminatory "broken windows" policing.

Moreover, the city could make much better use of $10.6 billion than to construct more jails. For example, research, to say nothing of common sense, tells us that small class size improves the academic outcomes for all students across racial and class lines, yet the city has no plans to promote smaller classes in our public schools, probably because of funding and space considerations.

Policymakers could also allocate the funds toward one of the Big Apple's most urgent needs, building and providing new housing that is truly affordable for our city's most low-income households. Unlike new jails, such measures would make significant progress toward improving the lives and well-being of the New Yorkers residing in the communities most often targeted by the city's policing and incarceration policies.

Robert Gangi is the Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, and a Democratic candidate for Mayor. On Twitter @PROPNYC.

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For a More Accountable NYPD, Improve Information Sharing on Police Misconduct

Garodnick City Council

Council Member Dan Garodnick, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

For decades, the New York City Police Department has had an early intervention system to identify officers prone to violence, based on their discipline and complaint history. Yet through leaks last month, we learned that the officers who killed Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham had extensive records of complaints against them. Despite so many documented problems, the officers remained in a position to harm the very people they were sworn to protect. In these cases, the early intervention system did not do its job.

We must do better and hold the NYPD more accountable for ensuring that its officers and the public are receiving all the benefits of a robust early intervention system. Several city agencies, from the Law Department to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), oversee the NYPD to some extent. Each of them should have complete access to the information that exists on police misconduct -- but today they do not. Officers with unusually high rates of alleged misconduct should be well known not only to the police department but also to all the entities that do oversight.

To accomplish this, I have written a bill that would require the Police Department, the Law Department, the Comptroller, the CCRB, and the Inspector General for the NYPD to share with each other information regarding civil actions, complaints, and other data points relating to allegations of police misconduct by officers.

Such information-sharing is key. In the absence of reliable and consistent access to this information, these oversight entities cannot properly discharge their responsibilities. Ultimately, an early intervention system that fails to intervene is not much of a system at all.

And we desperately need that system to work. Studies have found that a very small percentage of officers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of problematic interactions with civilians. Identifying those officers, and correcting their behavior or removing them from interaction with the public, would go a long way to rooting out the problem of excessive use of force by the police.

More eyes on police misconduct will mean greater accountability for the NYPD’s early intervention system. With a better system, we could ensure that the NYPD acts faster to address festering issues, and to protect the public. We would also ensure that our many talented and capable police officers do not have to be partnered with people who are going to put anyone’s life in danger.

We could also save the city a lot of money. In Fiscal Year 2016, New York City paid out $228 million in settling and paying out police misconduct judgments. Effective interventions to remove or retrain the few officers who are responsible for the most problems would reduce the city’s exposure to litigation and consequently reduce the costs associated with police misconduct.

Most importantly, this legislation could prevent tragedy. If a better information sharing system is in place, the NYPD will have to be more responsive to addressing misconduct of officers with histories of complaints. In the tragic case of Eric Garner, the NYPD knew Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s history, but did not take sufficient steps to address the underlying issues. In Pantaleo's previous disciplinary proceedings, the NYPD failed to follow the CCRB's recommendations for punishment. Further, they allowed him to continue to work on the street. If other oversight agencies also knew of the complaints and the recommended consequences, there might have been more pressure on the NYPD to heed these warning signs and work to prevent future incidents.

Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill have made significant progress in bridging divides between communities and police. They have an opportunity to continue this progress by supporting this bill, which will be the subject of a public hearing in front of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday, a hearing chaired by bill co-sponsor Vanessa Gibson. If we want to better protect civil liberties and to better identify officers that have a history of violence, let’s give all the oversight bodies the tools they need to conduct real analysis. It very well may save lives.

Daniel Garodnick has represented the fourth district in the New York City Council since 2006, and chairs the Economic Development Committee. On Twitter @DanGarodnick.

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Avoiding a False Debate on Reentry Programming

Cuomo prison visit

(photo: The Governor's Office)

To the Editor:

I am the author of one of the books referred to in Robert Cherry’s March 28, 2017 opinion piece, Choosing Post-Prison Reentry Programs That Work. The title of my book, Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison (The New Press), was not indicated in the essay and I wonder if Mr. Cherry read the book, even though he wrote an essay criticizing it. All his comments were based on a favorable, but not fully accurate essay that appeared in the New York Review of Books on February 23.

Mr. Cherry claimed Liberating Minds “argued against vocational” programs in prison. While I did laud the Bard Prison Initiative (with which I am affiliated), it is not the case that I “argued against” vocational education. Rather I endorsed programs of many different kinds so long as they are of high quality.

Unfortunately, too many vocational programs teach job-specific skills rather than generic skills of logic and reasoning, which will equip one over a lifetime for a rapidly changing job market. I was, and am, critical of such programs, but not of vocational education generally. Endorsing high quality in all forms of higher education is in no way a condemnation of vocational education, or an endorsement of the liberal arts. It is to call for standards that promote learning to learn and therefore ensure that an education has lasting benefit.

College-in-prison and reentry programs are important topics for discussion, but not when the central issues are clouded by inaccuracies. Your readers need to learn how and why such programs are a cost-effective investment that benefits everyone; they do not need to be distracted by a false debate about liberal versus vocational education.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor, Bard College, and Distinguished Fellow, Bard Prison Initiative

And in response to this letter, Professor Cherry writes:

I criticized the reviewer (from the New York Review of Books) for arguing against occupational programs not the books’ authors. The author now reinforces my assertion since she too rejects all certificate programs because they “teach job-specific skills rather than generic skills of logic and reasoning ...” Most importantly, she chastises me for creating “a false debate about liberal versus vocational education.” It is not I who run reentry programs that exclude certificate programs from the options supported for those with a high school equivalence degree. I am simply responding to these actions that adversely affect many of the previously incarcerated.

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Latino Voters and the 2017 New York City Elections

boe vote here sign

For the first time in history, there are more Latino voters in New York City than African Americans. In fact, Latinos now account for 23% (977,514) of all registered voters in NYC (4,281,946) and they are a quarter (735,641) of all registered Democrats (2,942,337), according to data from Prime New York’s voter analysis.

As the largest ethnic group in the city – and the entire United States – the Latino presence in New York is palpable: from the store-front taquerias and cuchifritos, to the salsa and merengue beat in the streets, to the baseball and soccer stars that dominate our airwaves.

This presence has also been felt electorally, but, until now, the Latino voting explosion has not increased their political representation. In fact, Latino-majority districts are now under direct threat from the drawing of specific districts, and the gentrification of traditionally Latino neighborhoods such as El Barrio (East Harlem) and Loisaida (the Lower East Side).

In Loisaida, the 2nd Council District has been represented by a Latino/a for almost thirty years. Though currently represented by Rosie Mendez, real estate development and gentrification has created a spike of younger white voters – who now outnumber Latinos by over 12,000 registered voters.

Other city districts do not face this direct threat to Latino political representation, but if the current demographic dynamics continue, it will become a widening reality.

Districts that have experienced a drastic shift include the 38th Council District, currently represented by Carlos Menchaca. On a larger scale the 7th Congressional District, which contains some of the 38th Council District, is showing this same influx of younger white voters, and many of them are not familiar with the incumbent Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

In spite of these electoral changes, the impact of Latinos cannot be ignored by future candidates, incumbents, or anyone. Some recent elections make this point, and very dramatically.

The last time a Latino topped the ticket in a municipal election was in 2005, when Fernando Ferrer won the mayoral Democratic primary. In that election, Latinos already constituted a quarter of the entire Democratic electorate, and over 90,000 Latinos voted in the primary. In 2013, the year in which Mayor de Blasio won his election, we saw a decline in the percentage of Latinos voting, but an actual increase in the actual number of Latinos who turned out. The increase totaled over 20,000 new voters, for a total of over 111,000 Latino votes in 2013. This increase occurred despite the absence of any Latino citywide candidate in that year. (Data based on Prime New York data and my own analysis.)

Current efforts to register more Latinos to vote and the rise of younger and active Latino community leaders will undoubtedly lead to greater Latino voter participation. My own statistical modeling and data analysis shows as many as 40,000 additional Latinos potentially voting in the upcoming 2017 New York City primary. Any candidate who ignores this powerhouse voting bloc – from the mayor on down – will do so at their peril.

In 2017 every candidate must be aware of, and sensitive to, the issues that affect Latinos in New York. Those issues can no longer be taken for granted. As a dominant citywide voting bloc, Latinos must be placed front and center in any policy or electoral agenda.

The recognition of Latino issues is not merely ethical. It is also good politics, because along with their growing electoral power, Latinos are developing a memory. They will remember who has taken them seriously, and who has not. Every elected official in New York, every current and future politician, should remember this fact.

Eli Valentin is a Democratic consultant and pastor of the Iglesia Evangelica Bautista in New York City. He is a frequent political analyst on Univision and NY1’s Inside City Hall. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

Getting It Right On Wrongful Convictions

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In support of Governor Cuomo’s Wrongful Conviction bill, Yusef Salaam and Fernando Bermudez have been sharing their powerful stories of being wrongfully convicted. Their horrific experiences unfortunately demonstrate the need for criminal justice reform in New York State. As two of the wrongfully charged and convicted “Central Park Five,” they know all too well the wrongful conviction rate in New York State is shameful, and action must be taken to implement meaningful change.

The failure to record interrogations and the lack of mandated best practices in identification procedures are two leading causes of wrongful convictions. Salaam and Bermudez are correct: we have a moral imperative to prevent wrongful convictions.

There are two competing bills currently pending in Albany. Governor Cuomo has included relevant bill language in his Article VII budget bill (Public Protection and General Government – Part D) and the Assembly has passed bill A.4239. Both purport to have the same purpose: providing meaningful criminal justice reform in the areas of police interrogations and identification procedures. Unfortunately, the problems will not likely be rectified if the legislation proposed by Gov. Cuomo is enacted. The Assembly bill goes further and provides the real change that New Yorkers need and deserve.

Salaam correctly points out that if his interrogation had been recorded, the jury and the court would have seen the hours of coercion leading up to the well-rehearsed “confession.” The governor’s bill does not meaningfully correct this wrong. Instead, it limits the requirement for recording to when a person is “in custody.” However, the police often manipulate this standard so that they can interrogate a person for hours while not “in custody.”

The determination of when to record interrogations cannot be left to the police. The Assembly bill recognizes this problem and requires recording of entire interrogations, regardless of the position taken by the interrogating police officers as to whether the person was “in custody.”

Furthermore, the governor’s bill has a severely limited set of enumerated crimes in which recording is required. The Assembly bill modestly expands this list to the most serious and violent of felonies. For this legislative initiative to truly accomplish its objectives, the Assembly’s expansion of the list of included charges is necessary.

The Assembly bill also closes other gaps that we believe renders the governor’s bill almost meaningless. For instance, there is no actual remedy for a failure to comply with the provisions of the governor’s bill. In contrast, the Assembly bill provides our courts and judges with appropriate tools to guarantee compliance with the standards the law would require.

Similarly, when it comes to identification procedures by eyewitnesses, the governor’s bill offers no real change. The governor’s bill does not require best practices in identification procedures; only suggests they be used; and provides no remedy for failing to follow those guidelines. In contrast, the Assembly bill codifies the best practices and mandates that the procedures be followed. In other words, the Assembly bill provides the meaningful change that is required.

The tragic railroading of defendants like the young men in the Central Park Five case and so many others must be stopped. Assembly bill A.4239 provides that change, and it should be passed now.

The Chief Defenders Association of New York (CDANY) is comprised of the heads of indigent defense offices across New York State. The New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NYSACDL) is the largest statewide criminal defense bar association in New York. The New York State Defenders Association operates the Public Defense Backup Center which serves the needs of 6,000 public defense lawyers throughout New York. Combined, we represent most people charged with crimes in New York State. All three organizations strongly support the passage of Assembly bill A.4239.

Mark Williams, President
Chief Defenders Association of New York

John S. Wallenstein, President
New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Jonathan E. Gradess, Executive Director
New York State Defenders Association

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State Electeds Insult City Criminal Justice While Reform in Albany is Minimal at Best

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Gov. Cuomo at Dannemora correctional facility (photo: Governor's Office)

Last week, State Senator Jesse Hamilton mailed a flier to his constituents strongly denouncing broken windows policing. The senator, who represents Crown Heights and surrounding neighborhoods in Brooklyn, called on the city to end arrests for minor quality-of-life offenses that “are often used to police black and brown bodies.”

The week before, during a speech in Manhattan, Governor Cuomo disparaged Mayor de Blasio for failing to close the notorious Rikers Island jail, accusing the mayor of “impotence.”

These criticisms of the city come as the state government, led by Cuomo, struggles to make its own reforms to New York’s criminal justice system. Current state budget negotiations include a push to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility so that 16- and 17-year-olds are largely prosecuted as juveniles, not adults. But the measure, which is seeing new daylight this year, has faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans for years, despite the fact that New York is now one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Senate Republicans want teenagers charged with violent crimes to be tried as adults and they want all 16- and 17-year-olds tried in criminal, not family, court.  

The Republican Conference holds a plurality in the Senate—and the power that comes with it—in part because Senator Hamilton and the seven other members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) do not caucus with the Democrats. Nominal “Democrat” Senator Simcha Felder caucuses with Republicans, giving the GOP a 32-seat bare majority in the 63-seat chamber.

But Senator Hamilton says that far from diluting the “raise the age” effort, his position in the IDC empowers progressive reform like it. “I, along with my colleagues in the IDC, have pushed Raise the Age further than ever before in the New York State Senate,” he said. “My advocacy around broken windows policing is motivated by my support for Raise the Age.”

For their part, city officials are defending their approach and pointing the finger back at the state. At a recent press conference, Mayor de Blasio was asked about Cuomo’s Rikers comments, and said, “Our job is to address this crisis [on Rikers Island]. We’ve been doing it for three straight years…The state’s job is to take care of the state prison system."

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca exchanged sharp words with Senator Hamilton on Twitter, asking him, “What law are you advancing at the state level to curb the impact of Broken Windows policing?”

Since that exchange, Senator Hamilton has introduced a bill to make turnstile jumping -- perhaps the prototypical broken windows offense -- a violation instead of a misdemeanor. Evading the subway fare is a charge the NYPD disproportionately brings against young black and Latino New Yorkers. Since city police enforce state laws, that is one avenue state legislators could use to influence city criminal justice.

Senator Hamilton, who is black, spoke of his son as a motivation for opposing broken windows policing and for supporting raising the age. “He’s at an age where ‘the talk’—about young black men, safety, and interactions with police—is not an abstraction.”

If the state raises the age of criminal responsibility, it will be the first major criminal justice reform legislation since the law ending the shackling of pregnant inmates in 2015. Executive action on prison reform has also slowed recently. After closing 13 prisons in his first term, Governor Cuomo has not closed any since 2013, even while the state prison population has continued to decline.

Last year, the governor also vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have increased funding to public defenders in the state. Cuomo insists he’s open to similar legislation but that it must be done through the budget.

And a New York Times report about rampant racial bias in New York State’s parole system led Cuomo to launch an investigation, but no findings have been made public and the parole system is unchanged.

Parole reform is on the list of criminal justice changes that advocates have long hoped New York State would take up. The list also includes reform to the bail system, ending the use of solitary confinement, and a bill to accelerate trials. Republican control of the Senate, aided by the IDC, makes further reforms less likely.

“The speedy trial bill, Kalief’s Law, should be a no-brainer,” said gabriel sayegh*, the Co-Executive Director of Katal, an organization fighting mass incarceration. “It would reduce pre-trial detention in jails.” The bill passed the Assembly unanimously, but has stalled in the Senate. “Even common sense bills that have bi-partisan support don’t get done,” sayegh said.

“I don’t think it’s a problem when state folks speak out on city issues, or vice versa,” continued sayegh. “We are eager to have the governor support the speedy trial bill, which would help us close Rikers. We want to see Senator Hamilton follow through by advancing legislation at the state level that addresses disparities in policing practices and arrests. They should connect their comments to action.”

Brenden Beck is a PhD candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center researching police, suburbs, inequality, and housing. On Twitter @BrendenBeck.

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*sayegh spells his name with all lowercase letters

Choosing Post-Prison Reentry Programs That Work

Rikers guards

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Each year 650,000 inmates exit prisons; a disproportionate share are black men. Indeed, at least one-quarter of black men have criminal justice involvement. Without effective reentry programs, joblessness and recidivism follow. All agree that educational enhancements should be an important component of reentry initiatives. There is, however, a struggle between those who advocate expanding access to academic programs leading to four-year degrees versus those who emphasize certificate and other training programs.

Last month, the New York Review of Books glowingly reviewed books that not only advocated for academic programs but also argued against vocational ones. This misguided myopia is divorced from reality.

The reviewed books were written by participants in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) program that serves the New York prison population. We are told that it transforms inmates who “lack more than the rudiments of basic literacy” into disciplined students who attain four-year liberal arts degrees. In defending its liberal arts approach, the article pointed to corporate executives who counsel students to “acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.”

By contrast, it criticized President Obama, who told a 2014 audience, “folks can make a lot more, potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” It also frowned on prison vocational efforts that “don’t show nearly the kind of personal or job-related gains that full college-in-prison programs yield.”

This perspective is wrong in many ways. Corporate leaders do not encourage majoring in liberal arts. Instead, they urge students to take these courses to supplement majors in which technical skills are developed. Left unsaid, by channeling students into primarily humanities majors, BPI avoids prison students overcoming their severe mathematics deficits. As a result, virtually none of the BPI graduates entered the corporate work world. Instead, they overwhelmingly gained employment in social service occupations in the public and nonprofit sectors: “working as youth advocates, counselors and teachers.”  

The disparagement of prison vocational programs is also off base. New York is one of the most successful states in enabling inmates to study for the High School Equivalency (HSE) exam. Despite these efforts, most inmates leave prison without passing the exam, making this four-year college-for-all approach inapplicable to most of them.

By contrast, a recent comprehensive government study found that certificate programs have significantly increased post-prison employment rates.  

Most troubling, however, the BPI program has been a signal to others that the college track is the desired goal for as many of the previously incarcerated as possible. I recently surveyed a number of New York City prison reentry programs for a report that will be published by the Manhattan Institute. I found in virtually all cases, the only option given to those with a HSE was academic programs at the community colleges. Other options, like certificate programs, were virtually unoffered.

I reviewed the highly respected Futures Now program at Bronx Community College, which provides college entry to the previously incarcerated. It has a committed staff that help them navigate the college experience. Unlike those in prison, however, these overwhelmingly black and Latino students have a myriad of issues that inhibit their academic success: housing problems, problematic social relations, and financial needs. Since virtually all of these students still have academic deficiency, they must first go through remediation courses.  

The problems with this four-year college-for-all strategy do not end there. In 2012, the median annual earnings of those with four-year degrees working full-time was $49,650. The modest share of Futures Now students that complete their four-year degree will overwhelming have weak transcripts and majors that will place them at the lower end of the earnings scale. The lowest-earning 30 percent of four-year graduates earn no more than $36,850: the median earnings of full-time workers with only two-year degrees. Thus, only a small share of Futures Now students end up earning more than if they had chosen two-year occupational programs that focus on direct employment.

Despite their best efforts to overcome these hurdles, only one-quarter of Futures Now students complete the two-year program; and few of them seek direct employment. Bronx Community College does not have job placement professionals, they expect their students to transfer to the senior colleges. Indeed, the largest share of Futures Now students was enrolled in the liberal arts track, favored by those who expect to transfer. If the best support program available only has a 25 percent success rate, many would have been better off enrolling instead in certificate programs available in the City University of New York (CUNY) system.

One final problem created by this well-intentioned strategy: Many of the successful few from the Futures Now program who attain four-year degrees have weak employment prospects and are counseled to seek postgraduate programs that can be expensive. A Brookings Institute study estimated that average black student debt ballooned from $23,400 to $53,000 as a result of postgraduate debt whereas white student debt rose from $16,000 to $28,000.

Studies consistently find that black students have lower grades and test scores than white students. As a result, black students are less likely to be accepted into public postgraduate programs and instead a disproportional share attend for-profit institutions: 28 percent compared to 10 percent of white students. Given their similarly poor undergraduate records, the outcome for many Futures Now college graduates who enroll in postgraduate programs may be high student debt with problematic employment credentials.

We should applaud Bard College for improving the lives of many inmates. We should not, however, accept their generalizations that it is better for the previously incarcerated to have liberal arts rather than occupational degrees, vocational programs for inmates and the previously incarcerated are detrimental, and prison reentry programs should focus exclusively on academic programs for those who have passed the HSE exam. While a share of those previously incarcerated can benefit from academic programs, particularly two-year occupational degrees, the majority is better served by certificate or other short-term training programs.

[Also read: Certificate Programs Offer Opportunity to At-Risk Youth]

Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.

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The ‘Mansion Tax,’ a Smart Step Toward Fairness

seniors during de blasio visit

Seniors (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

I grew up around some common stereotypes of New York City wealth: private schools, trust fund kids, and expensive Manhattan real estate. But as a New Yorker with family here going back to the late 1800s, I am aware that most of the people in our city do not have such luxuries. That’s why I support the “mansion tax” being championed by Mayor de Blasio and state Assembly Democrats and want to see it passed as part of the state budget in Albany this week.

Due to income inequality, gentrification, and inadequate Social Security benefits, among other factors, 19 percent of seniors in New York City live in poverty, according to City Limits. Seniors will constitute over a fifth of all New Yorkers in the next decade. Funds from the mansion tax, a 2.5% tax on sales of New York City property above $2 million, would go to rent subsidies for low-income seniors in New York City.

My family isn’t top 1% or even top 5% rich, but we have owned a large apartment on Riverside Drive since the early 1990s. If we sell and buy another apartment of similar value, we would pay the mansion tax, as would the buyer of our apartment. The people I grew up with -- those who can afford, or may inherit, homes worth over $2 million -- can afford to pay this tax. But taxes shouldn’t be levied simply because people can afford to pay them.

Because of the high costs of living in New York, many people with real estate worth over $2 million do not “feel” wealthy. Thankfully, taxes are about how wealthy you are, not how wealthy you feel. A better reason for taxes on wealth is that those with valuable property in our city have benefited from policies that have worked to purposefully increase our property values since the fiscal collapse of the mid 1970s. Taxes aren’t charity: we are returning to our city a portion of the success that we owe back to it -- and who better to benefit from this than seniors who don’t have a lot to live on? Local politics and policy have benefitted homeowners in New York City, while decades of national policies have left behind millions and hollowed out the middle class.

As economic historian Adam Tooze notes, “The fact that pre-tax incomes for the least favored half of American’s citizens have not risen, but have fallen slightly over the last forty years ought to be a show stopper. Literally, all other policy discourse should surely cease.” Read that again. The poorest half of the U.S. have experienced no real income gains in forty years. There are broad structural issues with our politics and economy that are driving stagnant incomes and the racial wealth gap. Addressing them requires transformational changes. The mansion tax is one small step in that direction that New York City can and should take, and will with approval in Albany.

Another point in this debate focuses on the hard work of the wealthy: that they have earned their accumulated benefits. This isn’t the full story. I was raised in a social environment that encouraged overwhelmingly white children to identify as “upper-middle class” rather than confront the realities of our wealth and class. Since then, I’ve been pushed to learn that hard work isn’t the only ingredient in my family’s prosperity. In addition to hard work of my forebears, the engine of 20th century prosperity was built on racialized social and economic policy that proactively furthered the opportunities and wealth of white families while systematically excluding families and communities of color. The result of these policies are now are often referred to as the racial wealth gap.

My family’s wealth serves to protect our comforts and privileges at the expense of our neighbors. This is precisely what opposing the mansion tax achieves: one real estate official called this tax “DOA” in Albany, while Manhattan Borough President Brewer and Governor Cuomo, both Democrats, oppose it. That’s their choice, but don’t do it on our account: not all of the wealthy want to raid the commons in order to keep more for ourselves. My family and many others like us support the mansion tax because we support New York City and know paying our fair share of taxes is necessary for its long-term vitality. This includes the safety and well-being of our seniors.

For a generation of young people who may inherit or be fortunate enough to purchase a house or apartment in New York City, issues like the mansion tax should not be an obscure policy matter declared DOA by the real estate lobby. New York City should do what it can to promote fairness and equity in our society, and Albany should agree. Wealthy people, especially young people with high incomes or inherited wealth need to push ourselves and each other to reframe the debate. Those with wealth, even the rich who do not “feel” rich, must pay more to keep New York City livable for everyone.

Evan Casper-Futterman is a PhD Candidate in Urban Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and is an adjunct instructor at several CUNY campuses. He is a member of Resource Generation, a national membership-based organization that organizes young people with wealth for the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.

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For Tuition Aid Boost to be Meaningful, CUNY Needs New Investment


James Davis, the author (photo: Dave Sanders)

There has never been a better moment for the state Legislature to fight for investment in quality, affordable public higher education. Governor Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship, though flawed, has reaffirmed the value of CUNY and SUNY and made “free tuition” for many a realistic policy goal.

But, CUNY needs a substantial increase in state funding to ensure the quality of the education that it currently provides, and far more than that to provide free, quality education to its entire student body, which is likely to continue to grow significantly.

As undergraduate enrollment has steadily increased at CUNY, state funding has not kept pace. This has meant fewer faculty teaching more students – leading to less student contact with full-time faculty members and more students who cannot enroll in the already-full classes they need to graduate.

I teach at Brooklyn College, where over the past five years, fewer than half the undergraduate courses were taught by full-time faculty. Sadly, this is higher than the average across CUNY’s eight senior colleges. Our students need more contact with full-time professors, not less.

In addition to teaching and conducting research, we provide academic and career advisement and guide students toward extra-curricular opportunities and internships. Despite the high quality of many of our adjunct faculty, they cannot mentor students in these ways, and CUNY’s overreliance on a vast, underpaid, contingent workforce shortchanges our students. Increased state funding would pay for more full-time professors to meet our students’ needs and support better pay and teaching conditions for adjunct faculty.

CUNY faculty consistently rise to the occasion, absorbing the impact of defunding by taking more and more students into our classes. Student requests for “overtallies” into classes that exceed the enrollment limit, demands from administrators to offer “jumbo” size courses, trips down a hallway to borrow chairs from a neighboring classroom – these are regular occurrences at Brooklyn College.

“Students essentially have to beg multiple faculty members to enter a class,” remarked one of my colleagues, “often after the first, second, or even third session.” “Rather than stuffing more bodies into an already crowded room,” she noted, “more funding would allow for reasonable class sizes and give students access to the education they deserve.”

The chair of one department mentioned that despite adding three students to every professor’s roster above the enrollment cap in their general education courses, at least 20 additional students per semester are denied “overtally” requests.

The problem creates a backlog to degree progress. Students often have urgent reasons to take these courses – to graduate on time or to maintain financial aid eligibility. But it is impossible to let everyone in.

CUNY faculty care deeply about our students’ educational progress and classroom experience. As professors acquire more students, the incentive is to assign less work – fewer or shorter papers, fewer exams or assessments that are standardized for quick turnaround – but that is not in the students’ interest, and faculty absorb the brunt of the impact of defunding. Professors are not averse to staying up later at night to read the extra papers or write the necessary comments, but there are diminishing returns for everyone. Overtallies are a perhaps less visible or even ‘backdoor’ method of increasing class sizes, one that cheats our students and further squeezes underpaid instructors.

As state legislators weigh the merits of Governor Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship, equal consideration should be given to educational quality as to access, and a substantial, long-overdue investment should be made in the City University.

James Davis, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and Brooklyn College Chapter Chair of the Professional Staff Congress.

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Facts About Fair Student Funding in New York City

james merriman nyccsc

James Merriman, the author

The New York City Independent Budget Office, the nonpartisan government watchdog, recently issued a report with some startling findings: Students in public charter schools will receive a lot less public funding and support this year than students in district schools. How much less? The IBO found that the gap started at $1,100 per student if the charter school is co-located in a public school building and shot up to nearly $5,000 if it isn’t.

And, the IBO found that the future is even grimmer—that gap will grow in 2017-18 and beyond as district expenditures rise by billions more a year.

None of this is a surprise to those in charter schools. For the past several years, they have watched as Mayor de Blasio poured millions into failing Renewal Schools, and increased the district’s budget to pay for raises for teachers. As a result, DOE’s budget has grown by 16% over the last three years while the amount that charter schools receive grew by only 3.7%.

That’s why this year the city’s public charter schools and the families they serve are united around getting more equitable funding. Proposals put forth by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate are a step in the right direction.

Apparently, though, simple fairness in funding between a child in a district school and a child in a charter school is an idea that UFT President Michael Mulgrew cannot stomach. That’s why the UFT is throwing everything it can at the wall to deny charter students more funding, hoping that people will ignore the IBO’s findings.

The UFT’s latest hail Mary is a “report” that shows that the 216 public charter schools in New York City last year had substantial cash assets, some $325 million. Thus, says Mulgrew, charter schools don’t need additional funding.

Unfortunately for the union, the report doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

If you average $325 million across the city’s 216 charter schools, that means each school has roughly $1.5 million in the bank. It’s a pittance when you take into account that charter schools are organized as not-for-profits and best financial practice requires that they maintain three to six months of operating revenue as cash on hand. After all, a public charter school doesn’t have a dedicated tax base, can’t go to the bank (or state) and quickly access credit if they get hit with unexpected expenses like needing to fix a roof or put in a new boiler. That’s why so many schools prudently hold funds to plan for emergencies.

The UFT also ignores the fact that, unlike their district counterparts, charter schools have to find their own buildings where they can create new schools or expand. They don’t have multi-billion dollar capital budgets as does the city for its own schools. At the same time, the UFT has been pressuring Mayor de Blasio to squeeze public charter schools by refusing them space in district-owned buildings.

In other words, the UFT has done its darndest to create conditions that have caused charter schools to plan for a rainy day and then damned them for buying an umbrella.

These inconsistencies don’t surprise us, but they do become a distraction from the real story about New York City’s charter schools – that they are consistently among the best and most popular public schools in the state, particularly for disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students. Not focusing on that is undoubtedly the UFT’s intention. But in the end we are confident lawmakers will make their budget decision on the merits, and here the facts are clear: charter schools aren’t receiving their fair share of funding. They, and the children they educate, deserve to. It’s that simple.

James Merriman is CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. On Twitter @Charter411.

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