Gov. Kathy Hochul pardoned nine people and commuted the sentences of four others on Wednesday — a year after she last granted several New Yorkers clemency — and pledged to continue to do so “on an ongoing basis," despite having not done so for a year.
Those who received sentence commutations include:
- Jacqueline Smalls, 60, a domestic violence survivor who is serving a 15-year-sentence for stabbing and killing her husband after he violated orders of protection and went into her home, causing her to fear for her life
- Anthony Evans, 56, who has served about 19 years of a 22-year-to-life sentence for burglary and has not been written up for a disciplinary infraction in more than 15 years
- Bruce Bryant, 53, who has spent his more than 30 years in prison earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, raising money for gun buybacks and creating a mentoring program for kids with incarcerated parents
- Stanley Bellamy, 60, who has earned multiple degrees, raised money for various charities, organized an annual antiviolence seminar and earned more than 70 certificates, awards and other recognitions during his 37 years in prison
Hochul also pardoned multiple immigrants who have already been released from prison, but who could have faced deportation because of crimes they had committed years ago.
"Clemency is a powerful tool that can be exercised to advance the interests of justice and fairness, and to recognize efforts made by individuals to improve not only their own lives but the lives of those around them," Hochul said in a written statement on Wednesday. “These grants of clemency serve not only to acknowledge the steps these individuals have taken to rehabilitate themselves, but to remind others that such change is possible and that nobody should be defined by their worst mistake.”
A push for more pardons
Last Christmas Eve, Gov. Kathy Hochul granted clemency to 10 people — nine pardons and one sentence commutation. At the time, she promised to do it more than just once a year. But in the year since — a year in which she was running for her first full term as governor — she did not approve a single clemency application.
Advocates have urged Hochul and past governors to use their clemency powers more often and for more people, as a tool to reduce the prison population and to give people second chances. They argue that it could incentivize incarcerated people to stay out of trouble and to participate in rehabilitative programming. They also cite research that people tend to commit crimes at much lower rates as they get older.
But such arguments have faced pushback as rising crime rates in recent years have stoked fear among many New Yorkers and prompted criticism from police and politicians who have blamed recent criminal justice reforms. Multiple bills that would have opened other avenues for early release failed in the state Legislature this year, as campaign season heated up. Hochul was also on the defensive in the lead-up to the election, as polls showed a tightening gap with her opponent, who labeled her soft on crime.
More than a month after Election Day, 450 people seeking pardons and 861 seeking sentence commutations were still waiting for a decision.
Proponents of criminal justice reform celebrated Hochul’s decision to grant clemency to a small number of those applicants. But they also urged the governor not to stop at 13.
“While our hearts break for those who are equally deserving of clemency and did not receive good news today, we double down on our commitment to keep fighting for their freedom,” Jose DiLenola, clemency campaign director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said in a statement.
These individuals are trying to be recognized as an individual who is worthy of executive clemency ... What that does is that changes a culture.
Recent clemency recipients have met with the governor's staff to share their recommendations for changing a process that currently operates with little transparency or consistency. The group wants the state to train peer counselors in prison to help people fill out clemency applications. They have also asked the governor to grant clemency to at least two people at every maximum security prison in the state each year.
“There are a lot of people that are incarcerated that are worthy of that opportunity to come home,” said Jon-Adrian Velazquez, whose sentence was commuted just before then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo left office. Velazquez served more than 23 years in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit.
“People in prison are competitive individuals. So now, instead of trying to be the toughest guy in the yard, or to lift the most weights in the yard and to be the biggest guy or have the most cuts, you know, instead of trying to do any of that, these individuals are trying to be recognized as an individual who is worthy of executive clemency,” he said. “What that does is that changes a culture.”
Clemency advocates hoping for more action post-election
Hochul has made a few changes to the state’s clemency process, including streamlining the application website and sending status updates to applicants twice a year. The governor has also hired two full-time employees and assembled an advisory panel to read through applications and make recommendations.
“We're pretty confident that Gov. Hochul is someone who's capable of the vision that enables her to see executive clemency as a corrective for the errors that occur in our criminal legal system,” said Kathryn Miller, co-director of the Cardozo Criminal Defense Clinic.
Miller and a group of Cardozo law students have submitted a clemency application for Joaquin Winfield, 57, who was sentenced to 37.5 years to life for nonviolent drug crimes. During his quarter-century in prison, Winfield’s attorneys say, his health has deteriorated and he’s lost mobility in his leg.
“He’s just simply not a threat to anyone,” Miller said.
Several bills have stalled in the Legislature that would create other opportunities outside of clemency to shorten people’s sentences, including one that would make anyone 55 or older who has served at least 15 years of their sentence eligible for parole. Another would instruct the parole board to focus on someone’s behavior while incarcerated, not the severity of their underlying conviction, when deciding whether to release them. State legislators have also proposed a bill that would allow judges to reduce lengthy sentences for people who have spent more than a decade behind bars.
Steve Zeidman, director of the CUNY School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic, hopes those measures will pass in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But whether or not they become law, he thinks Hochul and other governors should do more to shrink the prison population.
“You don't address mass incarceration one person here, two people there. The crisis lingers and isn't addressed,” he said. “That takes vast, industrial strength use of the clemency power that most governors have. I just think someone has to, you know, be the first one to take the step in a meaningful way.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized an executive chamber meeting with clemency recipients. The recipients met with members of the governor's staff, not the governor.