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The Democrats and Clemency


At the end of 2013 I look back at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s accomplishments and applaud him for what he has done to make New York State a better place. In November of 2010, I wrote an article praising him saying that we needed a political leader like Andrew to halt the waste of scarce tax dollars on half-empty prisons. I went on to say that when he would be sworn in as governor of New York State he would have the ability to correct the economic waste that had been generated by the archaic prison-industrial complex and could implement a smarter economic approach that eventually will lead to a better functioning criminal justice system that would be cost efficient for the people of New York.

Although Andrew 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 less 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 Governor 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 of 2011, I wrote to Gov. 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 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 headed by several reporters 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 Gov. Cuomo did not intend to let his executive clemency powers lie dormant.

But two years later, the contrary seems apparent since Gov. 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 Gov. Cuomo knows about the Rockefeller Drug Laws because he stood shoulder to shoulder with us trying 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 Gov. 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 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: 


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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