The governor is supposed to take into account an applicant’s ability to “remain free without breaking the law” as well as “exceptional progress in self-development and improvement”. As Governor Hochul grapples with this pile of documents, she has a rare opportunity to bring more order and integrity to the pardon process.
For those serving life sentences for violent crimes, leniency may seem like the only way out. I cannot, for example, see my parole board until I have served 28 years. But in many cases, you can ask for a pardon after serving half of your sentence. New York prisons hold 301 people serving life sentences without parole and 6,745 people serving life sentences, according to the prison service. This means that more than 20 percent of state prisoners are at risk of dying behind bars.
Still, getting clemency seems almost fanciful, with so many unpredictable events like the sudden downfall of a governor, the pardon of a victim, or the representation of an effective lawyer. The process itself is opaque. In New York, the Executive Clemency Bureau, a unit of the state corrections service, receives applications and begins a review, then sends completed petitions to the governor for review. But we need a panel that goes further: a panel that brings together the voices and experiences of prisoners and their defenders.
Letters of recommendation written in our pardon requests play a major role. Although civilians such as university professors, clerics and other volunteers are technically capable of submitting comments, in reality strict restrictions and red tape make it very difficult for them to be our advocates.
In other words, the people who know me best are unable to fully support me. This is one of the reasons I have never applied for clemency, even though I have been eligible for it for six years. The creative writing instructor who taught the workshop in Attica that changed my life cannot explain how he saw me transform my arrogant condemned demeanor into a confident voice on the page, and how that led to a career publishing articles in national magazines from prison. My 12 Step Attica sponsor cannot relay the conversations we had about what I had done and who I hope to be, and how shame and pride – two sides of the same coin – are in constant conflict within me.
During this time, superintendents, usually former correctional officers, almost always make recommendations. But these people don’t know us. I was incarcerated for two decades and I was incarcerated in five maximum security wards. I’ve never had a single heart-to-heart conversation with a superintendent, and that’s typical. While I don’t like the word congratulations, since I don’t necessarily consider leniency a deserved accomplishment (I wouldn’t note it on my CV), it occurred to me that none of the directors congratulated Bobby on have obtained clemency or wished him good luck.
To complement the work of the Executive Leniency Office, Hochul is expected to appoint a statewide Leniency Advisory Committee made up of experts in rehabilitation, reintegration and restorative justice, as well as a former incarcerated person. The panel could recommend the most convincing candidates for the governor to commute quarterly. It would remind my peers that redemption is regularly recognized and motivate them to reform. Even conservative states like South Dakota and South Carolina have boards of directors that directly make leniency decisions or advise the governor, resulting in more pardons than some more liberal states.