Since assuming office last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul has not delivered on a promise to grant clemency at a higher rate than her predecessors, say advocates of criminal justice reform.
Activists and family members of incarcerated men and women are scheduled to hold demonstrations on Thursday evening in Albany and outside the governor’s Midtown office, in hopes that the political climate has shifted in the wake of the just-completed midterm elections, where Republicans across the state made gains as they successfully campaigned on the issue of crime.
With concerns over public safety becoming a focal point on the campaign trail, advocates hope that the governor’s win will give her the latitude to grant more clemency without the political blowback.
“We understood that it would be very difficult for her beforehand to make logical clemencies because they would’ve been exploited, ripped apart by the opposition,” said Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.
Last December, just months into her tenure as governor, Hochul vowed to reform how her office grants clemency.
"As governor, I have a unique and solemn responsibility to carefully use the power of clemency to address individuals in the criminal justice system who have made mistakes and have taken extraordinary steps to rehabilitate themselves," Hochul said at the time.
The governor announced that she would expand her office’s executive power to grant clemency, and that she would do so on a rolling basis, rather than merely during the Christmas holidays as had become the norm during the Cuomo administration and under previous governors.
So far, Hochul has commuted just one sentence: Roger Cole, 55, who had originally received a 125-year sentence for drug sales and weapons possession. At the time of commuting his sentence last December, Hochul also granted nine pardons to people who had already completed their sentences
Hochul spoke to members of the Jim Owles Club in June, Roskoff recounted, and said she “expressed absolute empathy” for people serving long sentences.
Roskoff said he’d had additional encouraging conversations with the governor’s aides last week.
“Now is the absolute perfect time for her to release people who clearly pose no threat to society,” said Roskoff.
Avi Small, a spokesperson for the governor, said said the office could not comment on pending clemency applications, but that " Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice, fairness, and safety in the criminal justice system, and we are reviewing applications in that context.”
At the beginning of her tenure, criminal justice reform advocates had high expectations for Hochul, after expressing disappointment with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had made similar statements but ultimately commuted just 41 sentences over the course of his 10 years in office.
“The mood for many of the incarcerated people that I know personally, they were very happy,” said Jose DiLenola, a formerly incarcerated man who is now leading the clemency campaign for Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP. “They were hopeful.”
By his estimate more than 3,000 older New Yorkers are serving out long sentences and are at risk of dying behind bars.
“She made that promise that she would do more clemencies,” said Theresa Grady, a community leader with RAPP whose husband Morris Grady, 68, is currently serving a 40-year sentence at Green Haven Correctional Facility for attempted murder and has a number of health issues, including with his kidneys and blood pressure.
Grady said she approached Hochul in late July after an event at New York Presbyterian Hospital, when she held the governor’s hand and told her about her incarcerated husband, urging her to fulfill her promise.
“We want clemency now.”
This story was updated to include comment from the governor's office