Keeping rehabilitated inmates behind bars makes a mockery of America’s so-called justice system

Nowhere to be.
Nowhere to be.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

New York governor Mario Cuomo did it 37 times in 12 years.

New York Governor George Pataki did it 32 times 12 years.

New York governor Hugh Carey did it a whopping 155 times in eight years.

But the state’s current governor Andrew Cuomo has only commuted three prison sentences during his five years in office.

Once a Christmastime gubernatorial tradition, sentence commutations have fallen by the wayside under the current administration. Sentence commutations aren’t just about tradition, though. They’re about mercy, second chances, and rehabilitation. They’re also about money; sentence commutations make financial sense.

“We’re demanding that he release elderly prisoners who have served 10, 20, 30 years and are not a threat to society,” Allen Roskoff, founder of the national activist group Candles for Clemency, tells Quartz.

People who oppose sentence commutations, he says, “don’t understand what prison is about. It is supposed to be about rehabilitation. Most people believe in mercy and most people believe in second chances.”

Clemency isn’t just about principles, though; it’s also practical. If someone committed a violent crime as a young person, and they’ve since served decades behind bars and shown signs of rehabilitation, then keeping them in prison is just a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“We’re taking about grandmothers and people who are grandfathers, people in their 60s and 70s and 80s who are different than who they were when they were 30,” Roskoff says.

As activist and former prisoner Donna Hylton pointed out, the elderly are a particularly expensive demographic to incarcerate. On average, it costs around $60,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New York. For elderly prisoners with medical issues, that number is even higher.

“If you have a person who’s been in [jail] a significant amount of time and they have complications and chronic illnesses, it’s ridiculous. It’s costing hundreds of thousands for one person per year,” she tells Quartz.

To Hylton, clemency is a personal issue. Today she’s an accomplished woman—Hylton holds a master’s degree, works as a community health advocate for Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s and makes regular appearances on panels and TV segments about criminal justice reform. But she also served 27 years behind bars for murder, beginning in the mid-80s.

Although she repeatedly applied for a sentence commutation during her bid, she was denied. Looking back on everything she’s done today, it seems that many of those years she spent behind bars weren’t just a loss to her—they were a loss to society.

Although he’s fallen short on commutations, governor Cuomo has fared a little (very little) bit better with another kind of clemency. While a sentence commutation allows a prisoner to apply to the parole board for early release from prison, a pardon is a form of post-prison relief that allows for the restoration of rights. In some states, a pardon is a full expungement. Unfortunately, New Yorkers who get pardons still have a felony record, but are allowed to get certain vocational licenses and avoid deportation.

Sometimes—as with comedian Lenny Bruce’s posthumous 2003 pardon—a pardon is symbolic. In other cases, as with rapper Slick Rick’s 2008 pardon, it’s more significant. Slick Rick, whose real name is Ricky Walters, could have been deported back to his home country of England if governor David Patterson hadn’t intervened.

Cuomo has so far issued eight pardons—and those are important. But what he really needs to do is start issuing commutations.

Last year, the governor twice announced actions that seemed to show real change in regards to clemency. In December, he announced a plan to offer pardons to around 10,000 New Yorkers who were convicted as minors. Unfortunately, there were catches. For one, under the plan, eligible individuals wouldn’t be allowed to apply for a pardon until 10 years after their release from prison. That’s so prohibitively long as to make it almost worthless—especially if the goal is, as the press release indicates—to make employment and college admissions easier.

Also, only non-violent offenders are eligible, and they still must be living in New York. What’s more, they’re not necessarily permanent pardons. The juvenile pardons the governor is offering are conditional. If there’s a new conviction, the pardon is overturned.

The other, potentially more inclusive action Cuomo announced last year was a plan for expanded clemency offerings. In October, on the same day he announced his first two sentence commutations, the governor also announced plans for a partnership that would provide those seeking clemency with pro bono legal resources to help them through the application process.

The release doesn’t make clear whether the governor plans to focus that program on commutations or pardons, but advocates are hoping it’s the former.

To be clear, although we might wish that the Donna Hyltons of the world could be released sooner, there are also plenty of people who don’t deserve clemency. I served state prison time, and I certainly met people who were not committed to the rehabilitation process and did not deserve an early release. But I also met wonderful, giving women—women like Donna—who made a mistake, paid their dues and learned from it. Now they deserve some mercy, and it’s time for America’s politicians to step up to the plate.