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There’s Still a Clemency Grinch in the Governor’s Office

Governor Kathy Hochul is still extremely stingy with pardons and commutations.

Governor Kathy Hochul smiles at a podium and sports a green jacket at a press conference.

(Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

One year ago, after she granted pardons and commutations to 10 New Yorkers, Governor Kathy Hochul promised to overhaul the state's broken clemency process. She pledged to hire new staff to review the thousands of applications from currently incarcerated New Yorkers who have served time and are eligible for compassionate release, or those who need pardons to avoid deportation, or who simply deserve to have their records wiped clean. The goal was to grant clemency on a "rolling basis" throughout the year, instead of making the announcement at the end of the calendar year, like her predecessor.

"I am granting clemency to these deserving individuals who have exemplified rehabilitation, and I am committed to increased transparency and accountability in this process going forward," Hochul said in a release. "No one should be defined by their worst mistake, and these individuals have worked tirelessly to atone for theirs."

Seven months after Hochul made that announcement, she still hadn't granted any clemencies.

"It's not an overnight process, but it's one that’s going to be thoughtful, and one that will be long-term enduring," Hochul assured the Queens Daily Eagle in July. "When I went through this process last December for the first time, I said, 'There's got to be a better way.' So, we are overhauling the system from the ground up."

No clemencies came after those comments either, until Wednesday, when the governor's team announced that 13 people would be receiving clemency—nine pardons, and four commutations. 

According to Hochul's office, there were 861 commutation applications, and 450 pardon applications pending before yesterday's announcement; that means that the governor's mercy was shown to less than half of one percent of the people seeking commutation, and two percent of those seeking a pardon.

The governor's office did not answer our question about how many applications have been fully considered and rejected, but pointed to the fact that applicants now receive bi-annual letters regarding the status of their applications, and noted that two full-time employees—the director of clemency programs and the deputy director of clemency programs—have been hired to assist the executive office with processing applications.

Would Hochul support the currently pending legislation to release elderly New Yorkers from prison, or help ensure that incarcerated people receive fair and timely parole hearings? Her office only pledged to review anything that came across her desk.

Two of the four New Yorkers granted commutations, 60-year-old Jacqueline Smalls and 56-year-old Anthony Evans, will be released. The other two, 53-year-old Bruce Bryant and 60-year-old Stanley Bellamy, aren't even being released—they'll simply be permitted to go before the parole board much earlier than their previous sentence allowed for them. The parole board still may reject their pleas.

Victoria Law wrote about Bellamy's case for Hell Gate this past summer. He has been waiting since 2018 to hear back on his clemency application.

"I made a vow—even if I could never go home, I would do one thing to pay my debt back to the community and that was: prepare other men to go home," Bellamy told Hell Gate.

Jose DiLenola, the clemency campaign director for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said in a statement that the 13 clemencies "should be celebrated."

"While our hearts break for those who are equally deserving of clemency and did not receive good news today, we double down on our commitment to keep fighting for their freedom," DiLenola said. "To that end, we look forward to Governor Hochul fulfilling her commitment to grant more clemencies on an ongoing basis."

—Nick Pinto and Christopher Robbins

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