Saturday night, September 26, 2015 was not the first time Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP – along with about 100 or so other New Yorkers committed to ending mass incarceration and prison injustice – held up lighted candles outside Governor Cuomo’s home in Mt. Kisco. “Candles for Clemency” started last year, when we first stood outside the governor’s home, urging him to grow a heart and a spine and begin taking steps to reduce New York’s huge prison population.
The target issue of the Candles for Clemency vigils has been the governor’s executive power to release people from prison when other channels are not available. RAPP has been crucial to expanding these efforts, because we emphasize that, beyond clemency, the governor could also instruct his parole commissioners to release applicants when they clearly pose no danger to public safety.
Last year, Governor Cuomo did not appear at or respond to Candles for Clemency. This year the governor sent his counsel, Alphonso David, to address the crowd. And on the governor’s behalf, David insulted us all. He threw the burden for the governor’s lack of compassion (zero commutations in his five years in office) back on incarcerated people and their families. The obstacle, David said, has been the lack of “viable candidates” for commutation, a dearth of robust applications submitted to the governor. Individual candle-holders began to challenge David’s statements, calling them fabrications. After all, many people at the vigil had friends or family members who have in fact submitted files and papers requesting commutation—and who have waited in vain for a response.
But we don’t need to cite those files to expose the fabrications mouthed by David for his boss. All we need to do is look at the records of parole board releases—and denials.
There are more than 9,500 elders (people 50 and older) in the prisons of New York, and 2/3 of them have parole-eligible sentences. Put those numbers together with the regulations governing parole—the use of evidence-based methods for determining whether a person of, say, 62 years of age poses any risk of committing a crime of the nature he or she may have committed many decades earlier—plus the statistics showing that older people who have served long sentences pose the very lowest risk of recidivism, and you get a recipe for simultaneously promoting public safety and human rights. Yet Governor Cuomo and his administrators continue to deny some 75% of parole applicants over and over. That is a main reason why the population of people aged 50 and older in New York State prisons has risen by 81% since about 2000.
With a series of quick strokes of his pen (to sign clemency petitions) or just one phone call (instructing his parole board to do the right thing), the governor could put New York in the lead in ending the internationally embarrassing racist policies and practices that have filled prisons with people of color, damaging their families and destabilizing their communities. He could take the courageous—but totally sensible—step of releasing many elders, instead of turning prisons into nursing facilities. He could immediately save the millions of dollars being wasted on security and incarceration and funnel those funds into community health and welfare.
In other words, Governor Cuomo could be a leader. But first he desperately needs some heart. Instead of asking the community to nominate individual cases for clemency consideration, he, like the lion from the Wizard of Oz, should have asked us to help him find some courage. When he does that, we will know he truly cares about communities and justice.
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