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June 20, 2018

Is Gov Cuomo soon to have a worse record than Prez Trump on the clemency front?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece at The Appeal headlined "Cuomo The Merciless: New York's Democratic governor has granted only a trickle of commutations, fewer than many of his Democratic and Republican predecessors."  Here are excerpts: 

In 2015, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced the creation of an Executive Clemency Bureau to identify people in the state’s prison system who might be worthy of commutation.  The announcement sparked hope among the system’s approximately 50,000 prisoners, their families, and advocates that they might soon rejoin their families....

Cuomo encouraged attorneys and law firms to donate pro bono hours to help incarcerated people prepare their petitions.  Many heeded the call and devoted significant time and resources to helping dozens of people imprisoned across the state. But these efforts have not proved fruitful.

In December 2016, Cuomo had granted only seven commutations.  One was to Judith Clark, a former Weather Underground member initially sentenced to 75 years to life; her commutation allowed her to appear before the parole board immediately instead of waiting until 2056.  (Clark was denied parole and remains in prison.)  Another commutation granted an immediate release to Valerie Seeley, a domestic violence survivor sentenced to 19 years to life for the fatal stabbing of her abusive boyfriend in 1998, an act that she has always maintained was in self-defense.

About one year later, Cuomo’s office announced more commutations — this time, it was only to two men. He has not granted any clemencies since then.  His office did not respond to The Appeal’s queries about the possibility of future commutations.  Cuomo has, however, issued a greater number of pardons to those who have already served their time. He has granted 140 pardons to adults who were convicted of nonviolent felonies as 16- and 17-year-olds, thus expunging their felony records.  He also granted pardons to 18 others who might face deportation because of a criminal record.

Kathrina Szymborski oversees the pro-bono commutation efforts at the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, which has donated the equivalent of $1.5 million in pro-bono hours to clemency applicants.  She and her colleagues rejoiced when one client, 42-year-old Michael Flournoy, who had served 21 years of a 25-to-50-year sentence, received clemency in December 2017.  But, she told The Appeal, “we have many deserving clients whose applications are still pending. Our clients are dedicated and hard-working, so they continue to gather letters of support, receive stellar job reviews, and complete rehab and educational programs.  They’re trying to be part of society and enrich their communities as best they can from where they are, some by mentoring other prisoners, others by writing articles for publication in various newspapers and magazines. We feel that they’ve served their time and their further incarceration serves no purpose, so we find the lack of action on these applications disappointing.”

While Szymborski notes that her clients remain hopeful, Cuomo’s lack of action has disillusioned others. Steve Zeidman is the director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law as well as Clark’s attorney. While the clinic is working with about 25 people on clemency applications, he has received hundreds of requests for help.  “For so many people, clemency offered the hope that after decades of punishment their quantifiable and undeniable evidence of personal growth and transformation would be recognized,” he told The Appeal, “that they would be given the chance to live outside the prison walls.  As I have now been told on several occasions by those who have had their hopes of clemency reduced to pipe dreams, false hope is cruel; it is worse than no hope.”

I am more than a bit concerned that all the recent clemency talk coming from the White House could turn out to be the source of false hope, especially as Prez Trump gets consumed by other matters.  But among the many reasons I am rooting so hard for Prez Trump to keep using his clemency pen is because it should then become even easier for advocates to urge Governors to keep up the clemency pace.

June 20, 2018 at 04:41 PM | Permalink

Comments

https://www.lawfareblog.com/trumps-corrupt-use-pardon-power

"In no aspect of his presidency has Trump acted more immorally and done more damage to the rule of law and constitutional norms than in his exercise of the pardon power. He has granted only five pardons, far fewer than any modern president at a comparable stage."

So I guess that what you are saying Doug is that Cuomo is going to have a worse record than everybody!

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 20, 2018 4:59:10 PM

Daniel: That Lawfare quote is factually off. The last three Prez granted ZERO pardons in their first two years in office. The rest of the long commentary is interesting, but that blatant factual error darkens my view of everything else they say.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 20, 2018 8:29:13 PM

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