An Open Letter To Andrew Cuomo: Now Will You Keep Your Clemency Promises?

Despite big talk, in eight years, the governor has freed exactly one domestic violence survivor from prison.

S&P NYCNovember 7, 2018

Two days before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a Sept.13, 2018 primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, an S&P NYC activist holds a sign made by Athena Soules of the NYC Light Brigade calling on Cuomo to free incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, (Photo by Juli Kempner)

Gov­er­nor Cuomo:

We’re not asking the impossible. In August, California’s Governor Brown issued 18 commutations in one day.

Con­grat­u­la­tions on secur­ing a third term. This time around, are you ready to do right by crim­i­nal­ized sur­vivors of domes­tic violence?

We need to talk about the fact that you’ve been MIA on com­mu­ta­tions. You have sole pow­er to, with the stroke of a pen, free any crim­i­nal­ized sur­vivor of domes­tic vio­lence (and any­one else sen­tenced to incar­cer­a­tion in New York) today. Yet in this Me Too” moment, you’ve done noth­ing for those who had to go to the great­est lengths to sur­vive gen­der-based vio­lence.

This time last elec­tion cycle, things looked promis­ing. You promised New York­ers a more acces­si­ble, trans­par­ent com­mu­ta­tions sys­tem. In Decem­ber 2014, weeks after the elec­tion, you launched a new clemen­cy web­site and bureau. Then, in Octo­ber of 2015, you announced an ini­tia­tive to active­ly seek incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­u­als whose sen­tences you could com­mute, and encour­aged law firms and pub­lic defend­ers to pro­vide assis­tance to indi­vid­u­als who want­ed to pre­pare peti­tions. Your stat­ed goal for this ini­tia­tive was to ensure that clemen­cy is a more acces­si­ble and tan­gi­ble real­i­ty,” for incar­cer­at­ed New Yorkers.

Since that time, we have been wait­ing patient­ly to hear of more sen­tence com­mu­ta­tions, specif­i­cal­ly for indi­vid­u­als who are incar­cer­at­ed due to acts of sur­vival, or sur­vivors of gen­der vio­lence. For thou­sands of sur­vivors incar­cer­at­ed in New York, clemen­cy has yet to become a tan­gi­ble real­i­ty” as you promised. You have cre­at­ed a clemen­cy bureau to sup­pos­ed­ly make clemen­cy acces­si­ble,” but at the same time you cre­at­ed arbi­trary guide­lines that impede that very acces­si­bil­i­ty. In real­i­ty, you have absolute pow­er to com­mute anyone’s sen­tence at any time for any rea­son. Your exec­u­tive clemen­cy web­site says that The Gov­er­nor may com­mute a sen­tence in any way that he con­sid­ers appro­pri­ate.”

Gov­er­nor Cuo­mo — what hap­pened? You’ve been eight years in office now, but we have only 12 com­mu­ta­tions to show for it. Only one of them, Valerie See­ley, was a sur­vivor of domes­tic vio­lence. There are thou­sands of sur­vivors of domes­tic vio­lence incar­cer­at­ed through­out the New York State prison sys­tem, many of whom are there for rea­sons relat­ing to the vio­lence they endured. Most are serv­ing long sen­tences; many were incar­cer­at­ed at a very young age. Many we’ve spo­ken with have per­se­vered in the harsh envi­ron­ment of prison to learn about domes­tic vio­lence, how it affect­ed their lives, and how they can change their lives for the bet­ter. Incar­cer­a­tion con­tin­ues to trau­ma­tize these sur­vivors — an exten­sion of the vio­lence and abuse that they have endured through­out their lives. All have fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties wait­ing for them to come home.

We’re not ask­ing the impos­si­ble. In August, California’s Gov­er­nor Brown issued 18 com­mu­ta­tions in one day! Yet while Gov­er­nor Brown pub­lish­es reports on his com­mu­ta­tions record, you removed the data on your abysmal com­mu­ta­tions record from your site. Gov­er­nor Cuo­mo, you don’t have to be ashamed about bro­ken promis­es or the peo­ple you’ve let lan­guish in prison: Just pick up your pen, and free them.

We want to know what you are wait­ing for. Patrice Smith would also like to know. She has been incar­cer­at­ed since the age of 16, and would like you to know why you should com­mute her sen­tence and let her come home. Here is a let­ter from her, telling you why in her own words:

Click here to read Patrice’s full let­ter to Gov­er­nor Cuomo. 

The clemen­cy pow­er has his­tor­i­cal­ly been used gen­er­ous­ly, and should be — by com­mut­ing Patrice’s sen­tence and the sen­tences of thou­sands of oth­ers. You hold the key to their free­dom. But it is not just their free­dom — it is that of their fam­i­lies who do time” with them, and whose lives are put on hold while they are drained finan­cial­ly try­ing to sup­port an incar­cer­at­ed loved one. And the free­dom of com­mu­ni­ties who are deprived of their pres­ence and con­tri­bu­tions as active mem­bers. The cost in both human and finan­cial terms is astronomical.

It’s time to live up to your promis­es. It’s time to send them home. #FreeThem­NY

S&P NYC is the New York affil­i­ate of the here.
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