From: nytimes.com

More Mercy, Less Prison in a Shift for Cuomo

By Jim Dwyer
October 21, 2015

 One month ago, Allen Roskoff’s phone rang and Andrew Cuomo, governor, was on the line. In a few days, Mr. Roskoff, a Democratic civil rights activist, would be leading a candlelight vigil outside Mr. Cuomo’s home in Westchester County, calling for the governor to exercise his power to grant clemency.

Mr. Cuomo wanted Mr. Roskoff to cancel the vigil.

“I know him since he was 18 years old, when I worked to get Mario Cuomo elected,” Mr. Roskoff said. “He said: ‘Allen, I get it. I understand this. I get it. We’re going to move on this.’ ”

Mr. Roskoff was skeptical: Despite earlier promises, Mr. Cuomo, after nearly five years in office, had yet to commute the sentence of a single person. He had pardoned just five. So Mr. Roskoff went ahead with his “Candles for Clemency” vigil.

Now it looks as if the governor is keeping his word.

Mr. Cuomo has decided to commute the sentences of two people in prison on drug charges, and will pardon two others who have finished their terms but are at risk of being deported because of their convictions, his aides say. The pardons erase the convictions.

More broadly, Mr. Cuomo is creating a “clemency project” to find other worthy candidates and help them prepare petitions to be pardoned or to have their sentences commuted, according to Alphonso B. David, the governor’s chief counsel. Mr. David said that the requests would be reviewed four times a year, and that the governor’s office was asking superintendents at all the state’s prisons to suggest prisoners for consideration.

Such a project, even in embryonic form, is a drastic turnabout for New York, where governors have granted clemency to fewer than one in 100 people since 2006, with the exception of David A. Paterson, who granted about three in 100. For nearly four decades, clemency has been in decline in New York and across the country; some years it has seemed that only the Thanksgiving turkey at the White House was granted a pardon.

The orthodox view, embraced by the two leading political parties, was that there was no such thing as too much prison. That has changed.

On Wednesday, a confederation of major police and law enforcement officials released a report that said, “We need less incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe.”

Mr. David said that bar associations and public defender organizations had agreed to help prisoners and former convicts in drawing up applications with a narrative account of rehabilitation, remorse and efforts at self-improvement. “The applications are often anemic, at best,” he said. “Some don’t even indicate a name, just, ‘I would like to be granted clemency.’ ”

Besides Mr. Roskoff, the governor has spoken extensively with Ronnie M. Eldridge, a former city councilwoman, who “has been engaged in thinking this through with the governor,” Mr. David said.

Applications will be funneled to groups like the New York County Lawyers’ Association and the Legal Aid Society, Mr. David said. A senior court administrator has promised help with bureaucratic hurdles, like assembling records, Carol A. Sigmond, president of the county lawyers association, said.

“It’s hard if you’re donating time to a project, and all you’re doing is sending the same letter over and over just so you can do the pro bono work,” Ms. Sigmond said. Sara Bennett, a lawyer who has won commutations for state prisoners, will provide training. Applications will be reviewed by corrections, parole and victim service agencies, as well as district attorneys’ offices, Mr. David said. The governor has the final say.

In a statement, Mr. Cuomo said: “Today we are taking a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York. With this new initiative, we are seeking to identify those deserving of a second chance and to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.”

Said Mr. Roskoff: “We will be monitoring the progress.”

So far, the governor has granted clemency for nonviolent crimes. “Where do notions of mercy and redemption fit when we are talking about people convicted of violent crime?” asked Steve Zeidman, a lawyer for Judith Clark, who has served 34 years for driving a getaway car in the robbery of an armored car. Three people were killed by the robbers.

Although she has led, by many accounts, an admirable life in prison, Ms. Clark will not be eligible for parole until 2056, when she is 107 years old. The governor is sitting on an application of over 1,000 pages to shorten her sentence. That would not erase the conviction. But he would have to decide if mercy and justice are parallel forces, aimed toward equally honorable destinations.

Officers

BOARD OF GOVERNORS

  1. Hon. Eric Adams
  2. George Arzt
  3. Lance Bass
  4. John Blair
  5. Mark Benoit
  6. Hon. Rodneyse Bichotte
  7. Hon. Jonathan Bing
  8. Matthew Bond
  9. Erik Bottcher
  10. Hon. Gale Brewer
  11. Danny Burstein
  12. Robin Byrd
  13. Tiffany Cabán
  14. Christian Campbell
  15. Gus Christensen
  16. Hon. Martin Connor
  17. Tom Connor
  18. Hon. Jon Cooper
  19. Wilson Cruz
  20. Hon. Laurie Cumbo
  21. Alan Cumming
  22. Michael Czaczkes
  23. Hon. Bill de Blasio
  24. Aries Dela Cruz
  25. Jon Del Giorno
  26. Kyan Douglas
  27. James Duff
  28. Hon. Ronnie Eldridge
  29. Hon. Rafael Espinal
  30. Hon. Alan Fleishman
  31. Marc Fliedner
  32. Hon. Dan Garodnick
  33. Dan Gettleman
  34. Jason Goldman
  35. Emily Jane Goodman
  36. Hon. Mark Green
  37. Tony Hoffmann
  38. Hon. Brad Hoylman
  39. Binn Jakupi
  40. Hon. Letitia James
  41. Hon. Corey Johnson
  42. Camille Joseph
  43. Phillip Keane
  44. Suzanne Kessler
  45. Yetta Kurland
  46. Dodge Landesman
  47. Hon. Melissa Mark-Viverito
  48. Phillip McCarthy
  49. Matt McMorrow
  50. Michael Mallon
  51. Mike C. Manning
  52. David Mansur
  53. Cathy Marino-Thomas
  54. Troy Masters
  55. Hon. Carlos Menchaca
  56. Hon. Rosie Mendez
  57. John Cameron Mitchell
  58. Donny Moss
  59. Barry Mullineaux
  60. Denis O'Hare
  61. America Olivo Campbell
  62. Noah Pfefferbilt
  63. Josue Pierre
  64. Bob Pontarelli
  65. Billy Porter
  66. Hon. Keith Powers
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  70. Maer Roshan
  71. Sheila Rule
  72. Toby Russo
  73. Bill Samuels
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  75. Scott Sartiano
  76. Hon. Arthur Schwartz
  77. Lynn Schulman
  78. Cecile Scott
  79. Frank Selvaggi
  80. Rev. Al Sharpton
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  82. Hon. Jo Anne Simon
  83. Kathy Slawinski
  84. Tom Smith
  85. Anne Strahle
  86. Hon. Scott Stringer
  87. Wayne Sunday
  88. Hon. Bill Thompson
  89. JD Thompson
  90. Bjorn Thorstad
  91. Hon. Matt Titone
  92. Jessica Walter
  93. Barry Weinberg
  94. Seth Weissman
  95. Hon. Jumaane Williams
  96. Emma Wolfe
  97. Hon. Keith Wright
  98. Zephyr Teachout