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August 22, 2019

Cuomo’s clemency imperative: New York should show mercy to far more criminals sentenced to long prison terms

August 13, 2019

Point to release, governor. (Danielle Hyams/New York Daily News)

We are all the sum of our choices. Yet some choices carry such weight as to change the course of our lives and the lives of others. The question is whether we allow those choices to define us.

No place is this more resonant than in the need for Gov. Cuomo to use a stronger hand in granting clemencies. We know this because we’ve lived it. Despite the fact that we made terrible mistakes when we were young, Cuomo granted both of us a second chance.

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We both committed crimes that hurt others: taking a life to protect a loved one as well as an act of robbery. We paid the price with our freedom, but we worked to reform our lives and make amends.

To the outside world, we remained criminals, until executive clemency — in recognition of our rehabilitation — allowed us to rejoin our families and communities.

Such stories of redemption are remarkable only in their commonness. Meanwhile, second chances remain all too rare in a criminal system that, while built on rehabilitation, remains rooted in the “lock-em-up” culture of recent decades.

This is why we’re asking Cuomo to do for others what he did for us. The governor can reunite families, make our communities safer and stronger and continue to build on the reforms he’s helped to make law by expanding the use of his clemency powers.

At its core, clemency — the power of an executive to pardon a person convicted of a crime or to commute a prison sentence to a lesser term — is a recognition and reaffirmation of our highest ideals. The criminal justice system should be predicated on the restorative quality of justice, a belief that growth and redemption are possible.

Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, we lost sight of this. During that time, America’s prison population grew from 300,000 to more than 2 million — a seven-fold increase. Today, Germany incarcerates 85 people out of every 100,000; in France, the rate is 96 per 100,000. In the Empire State, 255 New Yorkers out of every 100,000 are incarcerated.

This is not because Americans are uniquely lawless. It is the result of deliberate and harsh changes in sentencing and policy. State and federal governments have started to address the sky-high rate of incarceration through criminal justice reform, including here in New York, which recently passed legislation reforming discovery and bail. But even with these reforms, we’re suffering an incarceration hangover that legislation alone cannot fix.

In 2017, Cuomo announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and FAMM State Clemency Project. These organizations, members of the New Yorkers United for Justice coalition, recruited more than 200 attorneys from firms large and small and law clinics to screen prisoner applications, producing a list of 95 petitions worthy of consideration.

Not one has been granted clemency so far.

In New York, upwards of 50,000 men and women remain imprisoned, costing taxpayers over $70,000 per individual annually.

The cost is more than monetary. For each person stuck behind bars who has paid their dues, there is a husband, a wife, a child or a community that has been deprived, exacting a social and economic toll on our state.

Applicants who receive clemency have worked hard to improve themselves during their incarceration and have demonstrated that they have matured while in prison. We, for example, have now dedicated our lives to crusading for meaningful, sensible criminal justice reform in New York.

Granting clemency to deserving individuals allows law enforcement to focus resources on those who continue to pose a threat to public safety and those still in need of rehabilitation. Restoring someone’s rights also gives them a better chance of success by providing access to jobs, housing, education and other opportunities.

It’s a gift we seek to be worthy of each and every day. And one we’re asking Cuomo to extend to others as well.

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Cumberbatch is chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice. Dupont is director of Making Kids Win and community liaison for Theater War productions.

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