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Cost of learning: A student deals with tuition payments at the UAlbany bursar’s office.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Learning to Pay

Pataki and King claim their new SUNY tuition plan guarantees predictability, but critics say it only guarantees tuition hikes

At the advice of State Univer-sity of New York Chancellor Robert King, Gov. George Pataki has made a tuition increase for SUNY part of his new executive budget.

Pataki has also adopted a new idea of King’s about increasing tuition in the future based on national average costs, and wants a restructuring of the Tuition Assistance Plan.

King suggested an initial $600 increase for the school year 2005-2006 as well. The New York Public Interest Research Group reported Pataki is requesting slightly smaller hikes of $500 for SUNY and $250 for CUNY.

King says the goal for the future is to protect students from “large unpredictable increases” by supplying regular, predictable increases based on the Higher Education Price Index. The HEPI is similar to the Consumer Price Index, only it is based on the spending of institutions of higher education rather than consumers. The tuition for each freshman class will be the previous year’s price multiplied by the HEPI. That rate will then be frozen for the class, so students will in theory pay the same rate the whole time they are in school.

Some SUNY presidents supported King’s plan. “This tuition proposal addresses one of the biggest financial variables that families face. It is a fair and rational policy that should be well received because it will allow families to more accurately plan and budget what it will cost for their sons and daughters to attend college,” said SUNY College of Technology at Delhi President Candace Vacko.

The proposal does not address the number one financial variable, however: state budget support. While the tuition rate may be frozen in respect to SUNY’s budget, the plan does not account for what happens when the state does not make good on its portion of funding for SUNY. If SUNY is not allotted the amount of money it needs to hold the tuition line, the difference will still be passed off to the students, so in the end, tuition may still be raised by unpredictable amounts.

“It’s a disaster,” said Assemblyman Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes). “The only predictability is that they’ll pay more each year.”

Canestrari said the plan places a greater burden on students, and holds the state at less of a commitment to fund higher education. “If the state fails to fund the budget, it’s passed on to tuition,” he said. NYPIRG reports that between 1990 and 2000, average college costs rose 97 percent, while state support decreased by 22 percent. During his time in office, Pataki has repeatedly proposed cuts to aid and programs that provide support for students.

Pataki also wants changes made to TAP, a program that helps about 60 percent of full-time students in New York pay for school. TAP gives students up to $5,000 per year to pay tuition, but does not help cover the cost of books, housing, or other expenses. The proposed increase of $500 for 2005-2006 would put tuition at $4,850, just barely under the $5,000 TAP limit.

Pataki’s new approach to TAP would give participating students half of their awarded money during college and the other half when they finish.

The governor said the proposed TAP structure is supposed to act as an incentive for students. NYPIRG disagrees, arguing TAP is already tied to a student’s performance. Currently they must maintain a cumulative C average, must be in good academic standing, and must be a full-time student. Not having as much aid initially could force more students to take out loans, or make it necessary to devote more time to a job rather than to maintaining grades.

“A combination of tuition hikes and financial-aid cuts will price students out of an affordable higher education,” said NYPIRG Higher Education Coordinator Miriam Kramer. “These proposals are simply fiscal gimmicks that borrow from students to balance the state budget.”

Student borrowing in New York state averages at about $3,600 per year, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The center’s report Measuring Up 2004 shows that college costs for low- and middle-income families amount to almost half of their family income for a year. This is for four-year schools, and after factoring in TAP. Community colleges cost almost as much.

The report, which includes a report card for each state, claims New York’s public higher education system is one of the least affordable in the country.

—Kevin Abbott


Overheard

“I don’t care if they give me a Price Chopper receipt. I just want to get going.”

—CDTA bus driver on an over-full Central Avenue bus that had just missed a green light because so many people were boarding.

“It doesn’t snow in China, does it? It’s too warm.”

—man at the back of a bus in Saturday’s snowstorm, to a group of Asian students who had just boarded the bus. They didn’t reply.

 



What a Week

Sharks to Blood

When District Attorney David Soares said on his way out of a meeting that we should recognize the entrepreneurial spirit of young drug dealers by helping them start businesses, anyone with two brain cells to rub together could tell he meant legitimate businesses, not storefront drug operations. Anyone, that is, except most of the local media outfits, which repeated the quote ad nauseum in outrage. Granted, sound bites are not Soares’ specialty. They are also not his job. Rational analysis is, however, supposed to be the job of journalism.

Quiet Dangers

Progressives have been bracing for the Bush administration to attack reproductive rights, the separation of church and state, and funding for social programs. But some less-familiar though nonetheless important programs are also under attack. The Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed in the 1970s to end the redlining by banks of certain neighborhoods, is under fire. An administration provision would exempt all but the very largest banks from its provisions, drawing sharp criticism from advocates for low-income neighborhoods, who say this will leave them without banking services other than exorbitant check- cashing services and payday lenders.

You’ll Hear From Us

Despite being repeatedly called “sore losers,” some Democrats are refusing to roll over to the idea of a Bush “mandate.” Though not able to prevent their confirmations, Democrats and supporters have delayed the process for Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales by asking tough questions and insisting that the issues of truthfulness about Iraq and acceptance of torture be addressed. Rice was confirmed by the Senate, but with a record “no” vote of 13. And along with healthy anti-inaugural protests, 500 “Progressive Democrats of America” gathered the following weekend in the snow for a Counter-Inaugural Summit. There’s life in the ‘ole guy yet.

 



Reluctant defendant: David Oehl.

photo: Shannon DeCelle

Ripples of Protests Past

For those arrested at last year’s RNC demonstrations, the struggle goes on

The hope and passion and fury of the protests outside the Republican National Convention last summer [“From New York, With Outrage,” Sept. 2, 2004] seem long distant to many leftward-leaning activists these days. An election has come and gone, and “rebuilding” and hashing out changes in strategy top the agenda.

Albany resident David Oehl doesn’t have the luxury of looking only to the future, however. Oehl was one of the people caught up in the mass arrests outside the RNC that have prompted a class-action lawsuit against the city of New York, and his case is still not settled.

Although he was part of the “die-in” protest on the Broadway I-787 exit ramp on the day after the Iraq War was declared, Oehl did not go to New York City this summer planning civil disobedience. Choosing his words carefully, Oehl explained that “getting arrested as a form of protest . . . has to be used strategically. If the right people aren’t watching, then the arrest is not very strategic.”

In fact, Oehl wasn’t even going down primarily to protest. He was more interested in all the “countercultural” “building-up” events that were taking place before and around the convention, from welding workshops held by a bicycle advocacy group to community-garden defense, fund-raisers and teach-ins. That stuff can be “more productive in terms of putting into practice alternative visions” than the big permitted marches, said Oehl, which he finds frustrating and stifling.

Bicycle advocacy is near and dear to Oehl’s heart, and he specifically went to New York planning to ride as much as possible. So when Sunday came and he found out there was going to be a bike ride in support of the permitted march it seemed to make sense as a way for him to participate.

However, a ways into the ride, which Oehl estimated at 300 to 500 riders, things began to look “hairy.” Oehl decided he didn’t like what he saw, and dropped back to make up his mind what to do. He says he had just decided that he wanted to take the next opportunity to leave, when he was arrested. “Instead of cutting off the street and telling people if they didn’t disperse they’d be arrested, they were moving in and picking people off from the back,” he said. “I was never given a warning to disperse. I wasn’t aware that I was doing anything wrong. So I really feel like the police were targeting people on bicycles.”

He was detained for 9 to 10 hours on the notorious Pier 57, a former bus depot that protesters have said was full of toxins, especially on the floor where many were forced to lie or sit due to the lack of benches. Compared to some people’s experiences—Oehl knows one protester who had his collarbone broken, and some people were detained for up to 66 hours without being charged, prompting repeated orders of contempt against the city—Oehl’s arrest experience was fairly mild.

But that doesn’t mean it was pleasant. “I was worried about having to spend a lot of time going back to New York City,” said Oehl. “I was worried about being arrested in a city where I didn’t know any lawyers. . . . I also didn’t think that my getting arrested [in this way] would do anybody any good. . . . I also worried about my bike, about it getting confiscated, and my belongings. Since I wasn’t planning on getting arrested, I had my cell phone with me, my address books that have a lot of information in them about my friends and who I hang out with, and there isn’t really a whole lot to stop a cop from going through all that and sending it off to the FBI, regardless of what their so-called rules are about that.”

Though Oehl had been arrested once before, that carefully planned action hadn’t prepared him for this experience. When he first came up in front of judge, he was offered a plea bargain of disorderly conduct (a violation, which is less serious than a misdemeanor) and time served. But “I still wasn’t aware of what the charges meant. They flung it out of nowhere and I had about five seconds to make a decision, so I pled not guilty,” he said.

The months since the arrest have been “nerve-wracking” for Oehl. He says his lawyer has been great, but he is in New York City, a volunteer with the National Lawyers Guild who had seven other RNC cases on top of his regular workload. Capital Region lawyers couldn’t represent him, since motions and briefs had to be filed in New York City. Oehl found only two other Capital Region residents who had been arrested, but both had accepted the plea bargain.

He has spent his time doing Internet research trying to figure out what “obstruction of government administration”—one of his charges, along with disorderly conduct and parading without a permit—meant. He attended two hearings, one in November and one in January.

Despite the worry—obstruction of government administration in theory carries up to one year in jail—Oehl has stuck by his not-guilty plea. “I don’t believe I did anything wrong, and I believe the city of New York is looking for excuses for its extreme civil-liberties crackdown,” he explained. “The more guilty pleas it can produce, the more they can say ‘We really did need police helicopters all over the place; we really did need these restrictions.’ ” Of course there have been moments when he wishes he’d just gone with the plea deal.

“The court system has all these arcane rules about standing up when the judge enters the courtroom and things like that,” he said. “Nobody really takes the time to explain any of it.” The process of driving to New York, getting searched, and waiting for several hours only to “stand up for five minutes” in front of a judge, not be entirely sure what happened, and go home, has been exceedingly frustrating, he recounted.

These are the sort of experiences people who are planning intentional civil disobedience plan for and expect. But when it comes from trying to obey the law while dissenting, it’s a clear case of “an attempt by the administration and the city to cut off dissent and the ability of people to demonstrate,” said Robert Levy, Oehl’s lawyer.

This is being borne out in the courts, said Bruce Bentley, the RNC mass defense coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild. “Out of 1,800 arrests, more than half were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” meaning if you’re not arrested within six months the charges are dropped, he said. In addition, 351 cases were dismissed outright. Of those who have gone to trial, there have been 18 acquittals and only six convictions, said Bentley, a ratio that is usually reversed—60 to 70 percent of most trials result in a conviction. Of those who have pled guilty, the vast majority have accepted a plea deal and pled guilty to a violation. Only 16 out of 1,800 have pled guilty to misdemeanors.

Within New York City, there has been lots of support for the defense effort, said Bentley. People are still coming forward with photo and video evidence. Oehl’s case now has two solid witnesses and video evidence, so he’s confident that when he goes to trial on Feb. 2 he’ll be acquitted.

But for him and others outside of the city (one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit is from British Columbia), the support network hasn’t been quite as available. Oehl has had trouble finding people to travel with him to the city. “No one wants to go in a courtroom,” he said. “I think a lot of activists are like, ‘There’s all this stuff [to be done]!’, and we don’t know how to focus on one thing at a time and be strategic. I think if people had sat down and thought about it, they would have been like, ‘Yeah, these people need help.’ ”

Though Oehl is still glad he went to the RNC and did what he did, he’s looking forward to the legal experience being over on Feb. 2. But even that’s not for sure. Even as the evidence against the police action overall mounts, his case will still proceed like any other. “The DA may say we’re not ready for trial,” cautioned Bentley. “Perhaps there’s a witness not available, or a judge will say there’s no courtrooms available. That happens.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


On death and life behind bars: David Kaczynski and Katy Chevigny.

photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

A Capital Debate

An attempt to reinstate the death penalty comes under fire in the Assembly


It was a matter of life and death—and justice—this week in Albany, as the state Assembly held a public hearing to discuss the future of the death penalty in New York.

The state’s 1995 capital punishment statute was ruled unconstitutional in June 2004 by the Court of Appeals, which determined that the sentencing guidelines for capital crimes might coerce jurors into voting for the death sentence in order to avoid a deadlock and the resulting default sentence: 20-25 years to life.

Last year, the Senate quickly introduced—and passed—a mildly revised version of the original bill, but the Assembly decided to open up discussion on the issue before reinstating the death penalty. According to Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), who presided over Tuesday’s hearing, at least two more hearings will be held before the Assembly is ready to make a decision. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has previously voiced his support for the statute.

Tuesday morning’s standing-room-only hearing in Albany mirrored previous hearings held earlier this year in New York City, with the crowd overwhelmingly opposed to the Senate’s bill. The most fervent supporters of the statute argued that deterring just a few criminals is worth the risk of wrongful convictions, while reform advocates—as well as those hoping for the statute’s abolishment—argued that the most important priority is to prevent innocent people from being sentenced to death.

Many cited the emergence of DNA testing and the cases of wrongful convictions it has brought to the public eye. Others pointed to the absence of life-without-parole sentences when the statute was approved in 1995 as a reason it got overwhelming support at the time.

Among the speakers providing testimony were members of the local clergy—including Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard—as well as law-enforcement officials, university professors and families of both murder victims and convicted murderers. David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty and the brother of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, described the difficult situation he was faced with when deciding how to handle suspicions about his brother’s activities.

“Anything we chose to do was going to lead to someone’s death,” said Kaczynski of the choice he had to make between his brother’s life—the death penalty seemed a likely punishment at the time—and the lives of potential victims of his brother’s mental instability.

Also in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing were several men who had been wrongly convicted of crimes that could have earned them the death penalty.

“If there was a death penalty at the time I fought this case, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said Jeffrey Blake, a Brooklyn man convicted of a double homicide in 1990, five years before New York adopted its capital punishment statute. Blake was exonerated eight years later after it was determined that both Blake and the prosecution’s only eyewitness were nowhere near the scene of the crime.

While several Assembly members were quick to classify anyone who opposed the 1995 statute as opponents of the death penalty as a whole, many of the day’s dozens of speakers expressed an acceptance of the penalty’s use but a need for more assurance that the people being put to death were actually guilty.

Throughout the day’s testimonies, speakers regularly referred to recent events in Illinois, where former Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who supported the death penalty during his time as a legislator, recently commuted the death sentences of more than 150 inmates after deciding that the state’s capital-punishment system was horribly flawed. On the eve of Tuesday’s hearing, members of New York’s Legislature were invited to a private screening of Deadline, an award-winning documentary of Ryan’s decision and the events leading up to it. Directed by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson, the film chronicled the realization by Ryan and the rest of the nation that the possibility of executing an innocent person in the nation’s criminal justice system is far greater than many Americans expect.

At a public screening of the film held after the hearing at the Washington Avenue branch of the Albany Public Library, Chevigny said she and Johnson were lucky to get as much information about Illinois’ prison system as they did. The criminal-justice system is becoming increasingly closed to outside eyes with each passing year, explained Chevigny, making it exceedingly difficult to shed light on the system’s flaws.

And flaws, according to many of Tuesday’s testimonies, are something that New York’s capital-punishment statute is full of.

“This is a system that’s imperfect at best,” explained Gerald Kogan, a retired chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Kogan said that while he served in Florida, only 3 percent of the cases that came before him involved the death penalty, but that these cases accounted for more than half of his workload. He also estimated that, over the course of his career, the state spent more than $3 million on death penalty cases, and $600,000 on cases where the sentence was life without parole. And, said Kogan, the likelihood of receiving a death sentence still depends more on where the crime is committed than the type of crime.

This last criticism was even echoed by Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who spoke in support of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Fitzpatrick was the prosecutor during one of the seven capital punishment cases to end in a death sentence since New York’s statute was adopted.

“You didn’t give us any guidelines,” said Fitzpatrick in response to questions about the statute’s inconsistent application. According to Fitzpatrick—and many of the day’s other speakers—certain district attorneys around New York are well-known opponents of the death penalty, and will never pursue it for any crime, while others have adopted a wide range of crimes that they consider worthy of the death penalty.

This discussion prompted a mixed response, with Assemblyman Robin Schimminger (D,I,C-Kenmore) arguing that more crimes be made eligible for capital punishment and others arguing for a narrowing of capital offenses.

Despite several Assemblymembers who countered each mention of abolishment or reform with questions about how the speakers would react if their family members were murdered (Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan (R-Newburgh), asked one speaker pushing for reform if he was also advocating against the death penalty for Adolf Hitler and “the culprits behind 9/11”), the day’s speakers proposed many alternatives to the 1995 statute. Some argued that a deadlocked jury for a capital crime should result in a default sentence of life without parole. Others argued against the screening process that removes anyone opposed to the death penalty from cases of capital crimes.

Those advocating for reform or abolishment of the death penalty say that the most important aspect of their fight is to direct more attention to the “justice” aspect of the nation’s criminal-justice system, but realize that a barely revised 1995 statute might well be approved.

When asked about this possibility late Tuesday night, Kaczynski sighed.

“Well, sometimes reason just doesn’t win out in the end,” he shrugged. “That happens, but it doesn’t mean the discussion is over. Far from it, actually.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net

 


Loose Ends

A sharply critical federal audit released by the Albany Police Department late Friday afternoon (a common tactic to get unfavorable news in the less-read Saturday daily paper), backed up what city comptroller Thomas Nitido found last year: that over several years, the APD misspent more than $40,000 from its seized asset fund for things outside of the federal guidelines, such as artwork, automatic car starters, and community events [“Tough Questions Continue,” Newsfront, April 1, 2004]. Police Chief James Turley said that changes already had been made before the audit began, and also questioned the guidelines, which stipulate the money must be used for “law enforcement purposes,” saying they were “vague.”



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