The progressive legal advocacy group Demand Justice is running a digital advertising campaign pressuring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to expedite the release of select groups of prisoners to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s jails and prisons.
The campaign’s 10-second video spot features headlines about the spread of the novel coronavirus in many of New York’s jails and prisons framed by the appeal, “Gov. Cuomo: Stop leaving New Yorkers to die.”
Another spot consists of a graphic with a fictional newspaper, “COVID-19 Update,” blaring the headline, “Cuomo to Rikers: Drop Dead.”
“New York is one of the places where the prisons continue to be a major problem in terms of the spread of coronavirus,” said Brian Fallon, founder and executive director of Demand Justice. “There has been an increase in the number of releases by both [New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio and by Cuomo, but the spread is still getting worse, and there’s still plenty that Cuomo, in particular, has not done.”
By the standards of a New York political campaign, Demand Justice’s five-figure digital ad buy is relatively modest. But Demand Justice stands out for its willingness to take on Cuomo, a favorite villain of the activist left who is nonetheless enjoying a political honeymoon thanks to his popular daily press briefings on COVID-19.
Cuomo committed in late March to release 1,100 low-level parole violators, a move welcomed by New York’s community of public defenders. As of Thursday, the state had released 791, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Cuomo also directed the state corrections agency on Thursday to begin releasing incarcerated pregnant women who are within six months of their scheduled releases.
“We will continue to monitor the COVID situation as it impacts every aspect of our state, including prisons, and make adjustments as appropriate,” Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, said in a statement.
The state has also been reviewing releasing select inmates over age 55 who have 90 days or less left on their sentences.
Cuomo’s office provided a statement from earlier this month in which he touts, among other measures, the effect of a 2019 state law restricting the use of cash bail for lowering the risk of infection during the crisis. Cuomo does not mention that he also enacted a new budget this month rolling back some provisions of that law.
“Wherever we can get people out of jails, out of prisons, now, we are,” he added.
Demand Justice and other criminal justice reform advocates, including Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, are calling on him to consider releasing a much larger universe of inmates.
Out of a total incarcerated population of 80,000, the activists estimate that New York can safely release up to 5,000 elderly inmates and about 5,000 people with less than a year left to serve on their sentences. The proponents of more rapid releases also project that there are several thousand more people incarcerated for technical violations of their parole that the state could release.
“Cuomo has the ability to change the situation for any of those individuals through an act of clemency,” Fallon said.
Demand Justice, which, in August, asked Democratic presidential candidates to promise not to name corporate lawyers to the federal bench, sees the initiative as part of its larger effort to elevate public interest-focused areas of the legal profession. In this case, it is amplifying the calls of public defenders, who have been some of the most outspoken critics of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic.
“We’re interested in building power for public defenders,” Fallon said.
COVID-19 has been particularly devastating to jails and prisons because of the density of the population, the lack of hygienic products and, in some cases, government mismanagement. For example, Rikers Island, a notorious jail complex operated by the New York City government, suffers an infection rate that is more than five times higher than that of the city at large.
Demand Justice sees a particular role for itself in pressuring Cuomo, who can grant clemency to Rikers inmates as well, since he has burnished such a positive image in the press for his handling of the pandemic.
“The portrait of the governor is a little too flattering given how little emphasis he has given to the most vulnerable people in his state,” Fallon said.
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