Gov. Cuomo has granted clemency to four people, two prisoners, and two previously convicted of drug offenses, as part of a new effort to slightly thin the state's ranks of drug war casualties using his powers of pardoning and sentence commutations. Cuomo is starting a "clemency project" to seek out candidates for his consideration and organizing legal groups to help inmates and ex-offenders petition for his help, according to an announcement his office made today. Going forward, he will review applications four times a year, his counsel Alphonso David told the New York Times.
As the Times explains:
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.
Now, mass incarceration has gone from an activist rallying cry to a topic of presidential and bipartisan political concern, something even New York's Broken Windows police commissioner claims to be opposed to.
The Governor's Office described the clemency recipients them this way:
Lydia Ortiz, 70, of Rochester, is currently serving an aggregate sentence of 20 to 25 years in prison with five years of post-release supervision after being convicted in 1989 of Conspiracy, First-degree Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance, and Third-degree Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in Monroe County. Ms. Ortiz has severe mobility issues and is unable to walk without assistance. Ms. Ortiz has an excellent prison disciplinary history and, despite her physical limitations and difficulty moving about the facility, has completed several programs to prepare her for re-entry, including the Alternative to Violence Program. She has maintained ties with family and friends during her incarceration and plans to reside with her family upon release.
Michael Correa, 43, of the Bronx, was convicted in 2010 of two counts of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the First Degree and Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Second Degree in New York County. Mr. Correa was battling substance abuse and sold drugs to an undercover officer to further support his addiction. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison and five years post-release supervision. Over the past five years in custody, Mr. Correa successfully achieved his high school equivalency and completed a program to prepare him for re-entry. Since 2014, he has participated in the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s temporary work release program and gained employment as a messenger for a New York City-based company. He is the father of three children and grandfather of three grandchildren.
Joseph Wilson, 66, of New York City, was convicted after a jury trial in 2006 in New York County of Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree, Attempted Tampering with Physical Evidence, Resisting Arrest, and Obstructing Governmental Administration in the Second Degree. He successfully completed four days of community service and one year of conditional discharge, and received a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities on December 15, 2009. Mr. Wilson is a native of Liberia who has resided in New York City for over 40 years and these convictions have hampered his efforts to regain his legal residency and obtain viable employment. Mr. Wilson has two grown sons and four grandchildren. He has no other criminal history.
Patrick Olivier, 43, of Jersey City, NJ, was convicted in 1993 of Third-degree Attempted Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in Suffolk County. Olivier was sentenced to 60 days in the Suffolk County Jail and five years of probation after pleading guilty. This was Mr. Olivier’s first and only criminal offense. Mr. Olivier has since obtained his general equivalency diploma, obtained his security guard’s license, and completed legal assistant training. Mr. Olivier is a lawful permanent resident from Haiti and seeks to become a U.S. citizen.
The current inmates are scheduled to be released on October 27th. Ortiz was sentenced in absentia on charges that she headed a multi-million dollar cocaine ring. She was on the lam for 14 years until marshals caught up to her in 2003 in Houston, Texas, where she was living under her mother's name, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
Public defender and bar organizations praised Cuomo's clemency initiative. Legal Aid Society head Seymour James said in a statement that clemency "gives people the opportunity to return to loved ones and contribute meaningfully to their communities."
New York's prison population was 53,500 in January 2014 [pdf], with just 12 percent of inmates locked up for drug offenses, and another 12.7 percent for property crimes. The remainder were convicted of violent crimes, so a meaningful reduction of the prison population would require the politically noxious task of significantly reducing the sentences of violent offenders present and future.
"Where do notions of mercy and redemption fit when we are talking about people convicted of violent crime?" lawyer Steve Zeidman asked Jim Dwyer at the Times. Zeidman represents Judith Clark, who has been imprisoned for 34 years for driving a getaway car during the botched Rockland County Brinks robbery that left two police officers and an armored-car guard dead. Clark is a model prisoner and supporters have been petitioning for her clemency for years.