$7.3 Million in Civil Asset Forfeitures to go to NY Prisoners for College Courses

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As part of a plan first announced in January 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s administration is earmarking more than $7 million dollars for New York state colleges – Cornell University, Mercy College, and Medaille College among them – in grants in order to offer courses to prisoners in several facilities around the state. Dubbed “Attica University”, the College-In-Prison Reentry Program is ironically not being offered in that prison, but is going to start or expand in 17 others.

This, on paper, sounds like a good thing. After all, the stated point of incarceration has been, for years, to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism rates – of course, in an era of prisons for hire, that’s not generally true around the country, but that doesn’t really apply in New York state. Also, although not exclusively, most of these monies are going to private colleges, with a very small percentage being invested in the SUNY system, unlike the “free college” plan championed by Cuomo earlier this year. What could possibly be the down side?

Wait for it…

So how is it being funded? According to State Senator Pat Gallivan, it isn’t through tax dollars, although he recognizes a big issue here – that the average taxpayer is going to have a problem with free education for prisoners while still having to fund their own children’s educations.

“Certainly from my constituents, it is not their state tax dollars and they haven’t paid for it and I think that’s important for our constituents to know. It’s very difficult to go back to the people that you represent and say ‘OK, we’re going to pay for additional services for criminals, but we’re still going to make you pay for your children.'”

If it isn’t taxpayer money, where is the money coming from? The answer is that it’s being funded by civil asset forfeiture, although it’s being billed as “settlements with large banks.” (WHEC, WGRZ) In 2012, The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged HSBC with business dealing with Iran, against whom there are US sanctions, as well as improper record keeping. As part of the settlement, HSBC agreed to pay $375 million to the state of New York and the US Treasury.

HSBC thanking a customer for their payment to New York State, as Gov. Cuomo wants you to believe.

The funds from this one case, which, to be clear, was paid for out of accounts held in New York, at HSBC’s US headquarters (formerly in Buffalo). These funds, which were billed as “money laundering”, as well as those from other cases, have not only paid for prisoner educations, but also $20 million (of a $1.3 billion settlement) for police cars in New York City (NY Daily News). These extreme settlements, which directly impacted their thousands of customers in New York State, were a huge contributing factor to the closing of their United States headquarters in Buffalo, NY, costing Western New York thousands of jobs.

These cases are bad enough. However, they don’t tell the real story here. The funds from HSBC are those being publicly earmarked for this program, although it is important to note that there is no way of knowing that these are the sole funds for this program, or if they are coming from other asset forfeitures.

The reality of these grants is that they are coming from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, which was established to “invest criminal asset forfeiture funds in impactful projects that will improve public safety, develop broad crime prevention efforts, and promote a fair and efficient justice system…” (CJII) There are no distinctions made in their literature between funds seized from large banks and those seized at routine traffic stops because it’s apparently a crime to have too much cash in your car. While the goal seems noble (reduce recidivism and prison occupancy rates), these activities have been funded by victims of public corruptions for at least the last three years.

This reallocation of seized funds is being billed as a “donation” from the New York County District Attorney. The reality is that funds wrongly obtained via civil asset forfeiture should be returned to rightful owners, and the practice of civil asset forfeiture should cease immediately.

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