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.