New York State Is Giving Prisoners A Better Chance At Clemency

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest move will boost resources for inmates asking for commutations and pardons.

New York state is partnering with a coalition of national legal organizations in a move to expand pro bono resources for state prisoners seeking pardons or commutations, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Monday.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Foundation for Criminal Justice, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and other organizations will help expand the efforts of a clemency initiative begun by Cuomo in 2015. Under that program, private lawyers have been providing free legal assistance to those in prison and those with criminal records to ensure that they make their best case for clemency to the governor. 

“These nationally recognized organizations have already proven successful in helping incarcerated individuals get access to the resources they need to apply for clemency, make the case for their rehabilitation and have the opportunity to contribute to and re-enter society,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I’m proud to partner with them to expand the work of this administration and its partners and take one more step toward a more just, more fair and more compassionate New York for all.”

Two years ago, Cuomo launched the program to identify and assist potential candidates for clemency and to streamline the application process. The goal was to “ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality,” the governor said at the time. The program has since helped identify 1,700 potential applicants.

State governors can grant clemency by either commuting a prisoner’s sentence, which reduces it in length or severity, or by pardoning an inmate entirely, thereby erasing the individual’s criminal record. But governors typically use that power sparingly. Since taking New York’s top job in 2011, Cuomo has commuted the sentences of 10 individuals and granted pardons to 114 others. Late last year, he commuted the sentence of Judith Clark, 67, who’d been sentenced to serve at least 75 years for her role as the getaway driver in a 1981 robbery of an armored car. He’s also commuted the sentences of a handful of drug offenders.

Cuomo’s latest partnership is based in part upon a federal effort, launched under the Obama administration in 2014, that had encouraged national legal groups to train attorneys to identify potential clemency petitioners and assist them in applying. Clemency Project 2014 came under scrutiny last year for making slow work of the thousands of federal cases it had taken on.

In New York state, however, local legal groups appear happy to be getting the additional resources.

“This partnership is a welcome expansion to the existing project, as it will bring more lawyers together with applicants who lack the resources to pay for representation,” said John S. Wallenstein, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in a statement. “With more training, mentoring, and electronic access to client materials, this partnership will help our members better represent reformed and rehabilitated applicants in the State’s process, and assist them in their efforts to apply for clemency.”

Along with the criminal defense association, the New York City Bar Association, the New York County Lawyers Association, the New York State Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York have also been part of Cuomo’s clemency initiative.