By Anthony Papa
Although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has done a great job as governor to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, there is one particular area I feel he needs to make an improvement. This is his use of executive clemency powers. Since he has been in office, Cuomo has yet to use these powers and has not granted anyone any type of relief despite hundreds and hundreds of applications.
This is surely a dismal account to people like me, but if you are eyeballing a presidential candidacy, it might make sense. The fewer people you grant relief under the powers of clemency, the less you have to worry about the political repercussions it brings. And it seems that Cuomo is not alone with this frame of thought. Joining him is President Obama, who has the worst record of all presidents in using the power of executive clemency. To date Obama has given 39 pardons and one commutation.
In December 2011, I wrote to Cuomo, urging him to go on a rescue mission and grant clemency to people who were convicted under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and had served enormous amounts of time and were still stuck in prison. This was because they had been denied judicial relief and had fallen into the cracks of the criminal justice system. At that time the request brought to life a campaign urging Cuomo to use his clemency powers. This was led by New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, who wrote two columns on this subject. In his second column, “Lessons in DNA and Mercy,” he made a few interesting points, including how the Cuomo administration would be conducting reviews of clemency requests from prisoners serving long drug sentences for drug offenses that were no longer being punished so severely. Dwyer’s piece also quoted Cuomo’s chief spokesman, Josh Vlasto, who said that Cuomo did not intend to let his executive clemency powers lie dormant.
But two years later, the contrary seems apparent. Cuomo has not used his clemency powers in any way, leaving many worthy people who have applied for clemency relief stuck in prison.
I know that Cuomo knows about the Rockefeller Drug Laws because he tried to repeal them in the past. He knows of the injustice that these bad laws created, affecting tens of thousands of individuals, including innocent family members.
The holiday season is a traditional time for executives to use their power of clemency or pardons to show mercy to people who are imprisoned under unjust laws. These are people who have already served enormous amounts of time but are stuck in prison and have no legal remedies in which to use to regain their freedom. Once again I am asking Cuomo to please use his executive clemency powers to free those who deserve a second chance in life.
Anthony Papa is the author of “15 to Life” and the manager of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.