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. Robin Byrd
  9. Hon. Gale Brewer
  10. Christian Campbell
  11. Lisa Cannistraci
  12. Kathleen Chalfant
  13. Gus Christensen
  14. Erik Coler
  15. Debra Cooper
  16. Hon. Jon Cooper
  17. Wilson Cruz
  18. Hon. Laurie Cumbo
  19. Alan Cumming
  20. Valorie Curry
  21. Michael Czaczkes
  22. Hon. Bill de Blasio
  23. Jon Del Giorno
  24. Aries Dela Cruz
  25. Kyan Douglas
  26. Hon. Daniel Dromm
  27. James Duff
  28. Hon. Ronnie Eldridge
  29. Kathryn Erbe
  30. Hon. Herman Farrell
  31. Hon. Alan Fleishman
  32. Hon. Dan Garodnick
  33. Dan Gettleman
  34. Tommy Greco
  35. Hon. Mark Green
  36. Robert Grunnah
  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. Greg Lambert
  45. Marc Landis
  46. Dodge Landesman
  47. Cameron McFadden
  48. Michael Mallon
  49. Mike C. Manning
  50. Cathy Marino-Thomas
  51. Hon. Carlos Menchaca
  52. Hon. Rosie Mendez
  53. John Cameron Mitchell
  54. Donny Moss
  55. Barry Mullineaux
  56. Ali Najmi
  57. Hon. Paul Newell
  58. Hon. Yuh-Line Niou
  59. Noah Pfefferbilt
  60. Josue Pierre
  61. Bob Pontarelli
  62. Billy Porter
  63. Joe Pressley
  64. Hon. Jenifer Rajkumar
  65. Neil Reilly
  66. Hon. Gustavo Rivera
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  70. Toby Russo
  71. Bill Samuels
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  73. Scott Sartiano
  74. Hon. Arthur Schwartz
  75. Lynn Schulman
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  77. Frank Selvaggi
  78. Rev. Al Sharpton
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  80. Hon. Jo Anne Simon
  81. Tom Smith
  82. Marti Speranza
  83. Anne Strahle
  84. Hon. Scott Stringer
  85. Wayne Sunday
  86. Hon. Bill Thompson
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  89. Sam Underwood
  90. Derek Walker
  91. Jessica Walter
  92. Patricia Nell Warren
  93. Wil Weder
  94. Seth Weissman
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  96. Mel Wymore
  97. Emma Wolfe
  98. Hon. Keith Wright
  99. Zephyr Teachout