Spitzer Fails to Show Compassion, Grants Zero Holiday Clemencies to Nonviolent Rockefeller Prisoners

Press Release December 26, 2007
Media Contact

Tony Papa at (646)420-7290 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646)335-2264

New York–In a stunning move, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer failed to issue even a single clemency to anyone incarcerated under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. New York governors have traditionally used Christmas time as an opportunity to show compassion by granting executive clemency to a number of New York’s prisoners. Former Republican Gov. George Pataki granted 32 clemencies in his career, 28 of which were for people serving sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. While thousands of individuals are serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Gov. Spitzer timidly granted only one pardon to an individual who was set free nearly 10 years ago.

“For many of those who have fallen through the cracks of Rockefeller Drug Law reform, their only hope to regain their freedom is through the act of executive clemency,” said Anthony Papa, communications specialist at the Drug Policy Alliance. Mr. Papa, who was sentenced to 15-to-life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, received clemency by former Gov. Pataki in 1996. “There were many families praying this holiday season that Gov. Spitzer would show his compassion, and allow people to return to their families and reenter society as productive citizens. They are devastated to learn that he is not granting any clemencies.”

While campaigning for governor, Mr. Spitzer promised to make Rockefeller Drug Law reform a priority during his term as governor. However, during his first year in office, he has remained strangely silent about reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Today there are still almost 14,000 individuals imprisoned under the laws; over 90% of them are black or Latino. Despite two minor reforms in 2004 and 2005, a welcome first step, the majority of Rockefeller prisoners were not affected by the changes. Out of around 1,000 Rockefeller prisoners who became eligible for judicial relief, only about 450 regained their freedom; the rest remain incarcerated because of procedural road blocks created by prosecutors.

Earlier this year, Gov. Spitzer created a Commission on Sentencing Reform and charged the commission to review the state’s broken criminal justice system and make evidence-based recommendations for reform. Chaired by Department of Criminal Justice Services head Denise O’Donnell, the Commission issued its preliminary report in October. Shockingly, the report included no recommendations for drug law reform. Advocates are still waiting for Gov. Spitzer to keep his promise for broader drug law reform, but assumed he would at least carry on the tradition of granting holiday clemencies.

“It’s upsetting that the ‘Day One’ Governor would act like Uncle Scrooge during the holidays,” said Gabriel Sayegh, director of the State Organizing and Policy Project at the Drug Policy Alliance. “For nearly 35 years, these racist laws have undermined justice and fairness in our state, and Gov. Spitzer knows it. It’s time for the governor to walk the talk and make good on his campaign promises by restoring justice and fairness in New York.”

“I know first-hand how meaningful a holiday clemency can be,” said Mr. Papa. “For the last ten years, I’ve been a productive member of society instead of being locked in a cage for a first-time, nonviolent offense, costing taxpayers nearly half a million dollars. The governor, with one stroke of his pen, can allow others to have the same opportunity that I had.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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