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Zeldin Threat Passed, Criminal Justice Reformers Ready to Push Hochul

Activists and experts say the newly elected first female governor of New York State has plenty of promises to deliver on when it comes to prisoner’s rights and clemency.

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Criminal justice reform advocates rallied outside Governor Kathy Hochul’s Midtown offices in March decrying her push to roll back parts of bail reform.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

After months of largely staying quiet during the unexpectedly competitive governor’s race, not wanting to give fuel to her right-wing opponent, criminal justice reformers are now looking to push Gov. Kathy Hochul on a series of issues. 

Those include plans to press Hochul to support stalled legislation to ease parole release restrictions for elderly people behind bars based on individualized assessments and to streamline the sealing of criminal records that frequently make it difficult for individuals to move on with their lives, advocates and policy experts told THE CITY. 

They also want the newly elected governor to keep her word on drastically overhauling the prisoner clemency process — and to start enforcing a legislative ban on solitary confinement that has been routinely ignored by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

“We want to promote healing and justice and investing in our communities,” said Roslyn Smith, the Brooklyn community leader of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). 

Smith and others note that the push for elder parole is a matter of life and death for some people behind bars who aren’t eligible for early release for decades under the current system. 

The criminal justice reform wish list comes after Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, spent months on the campaign trail slamming Hochul for perceived spikes in crime — and what he argued was her inability to address it. 

Reformers and some political observers described those ultimately unsuccessful political attacks as “fear mongering” that should not be used to dictate her policy decisions over the next four years. 

“I think her being re-elected is a sign that these are things that society wants, in the broadest sense,” said political strategist Patrick Jenkins, a lobbyist who has worked for and with several local and state elected officials. 

Hochul and her press team did not respond to an email seeking comment. She rarely, if ever, talked about specific pending criminal justice reform legislation on the campaign trail. 

Talking to reporters at the annual Somos conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hochul said she’d have “conversations” with legislative leaders “about the overall, comprehensive, strategy to deal with public safety.” 

“We will continue our efforts on guns… the courts,” she said. “And I think this is the untold story here is we had two solid years of no jury trials.” 

‘I left So Many People Behind’

For Smith, 60, the issue of elderly parole is personal. 

She spent 39 years in prison for a murder conviction and was released four years ago after Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez quietly moved to reduce her sentence. 

“I’m taking on doing this work because I left so many people behind languishing in prison, dying in prison,” she said. 

The Elder Parole measure would automatically grant parole hearings to all prisoners who have served 15 years or more when they turn 55. Criminal justice reformers point out that if passed, it would still not result in an automatic release of everyone eligible. 

Criminal justice reform advocate Roslyn Smith in front of her Flatbush apartment building. Nov. 10, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The incarcerated people would need to be approved by a parole board, which is unlikely to release people convicted of multiple killings or other high-profile crimes — or if the person shows no signs of remorse and rehabilitation. 

The legislation was first introduced in 2018. Last year, Republicans were joined in their opposition to elder parole by some moderate Democrats, whose party controlled both houses of the state Legislature with veto-proof super majorites.

Supporters of the legislation point out that one person in state prison dies every three days on average, records show. They also note that the majority of New Yorkers locked up are people of color

Prisoner advocates also point to multiple studies that indicate there’s little risk that elderly prisoners will commit new crimes if paroled. About 1.5% of murders annually are committed by people who are 75 years and older.

“People need to be seen for who they are, after 15 to 20 years [in prison], people aged out of criminal activities,” said Smith. “The rhetoric that’s been put out is that everybody who comes home commits more crimes. But it’s not true.” 

Not So Patiently Waiting

Mayor Eric Adams — who has repeatedly blamed changes in the bail law as a primary culprit for crime — has not publicly taken a position on the Elder Parole measure and other reform proposals. 

A spokesperson for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment. 

Other proposals where his office has stayed quiet include the Clean Slate Act to “make record sealing much more accessible by automating the process,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports the legislation

It could assist up to 1.4 million people, according to one estimate by the Paper Prisons Initiative of Santa Clara University.

As for clemency, shortly after Hochul first took office — following Andrew Cuomo’s scandal-scarred resignation — she promised to overhaul the system by adding more staff to review applications and to create an advisory panel. 

Criminal justice reform advocates rallied outside Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Midtown Manhattan offices in March.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But the panel has never been formed and, aside from nine pardons and one commutation the day of her announcement, nothing has been done. 

Some advocates and political observers believe that she has been waiting until after the election. 

“From my perspective, an election should have no impact  on whether someone merits clemency,” said Steven Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law.  

He hailed the added state staff set to review the thousands of pending cases but cautioned that it would make no difference unless Hochul took more aggressive action. 

“Is there going to be regular, ongoing, clemency?” he added. “Until that happens that’s a disappointment.”

One issue that doesn’t need a legislative fix is limits on solitary confinement in all lockups throughout the state. 

Hochul signed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act back in March. 

That measure bans people from being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 straight days, or 20 out of 60 days.  Prison officials are also blocked from using solitary for people with disabilities or mental health issues, according to the new law. 

But state prisons have been ignoring the new regulations, with four in 10 people in solitary with listed mental health care needs, according to a report by New York Focus

Prison Boss Hold Up

Meanwhile, the state Senate has refused to confirm DOCCS’ acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, citing his inability to overhaul the department during his nine-years in leadership roles. 

Elmira Prison in Upstate New York.

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Advocates and criminal justice experts want Hochul to appoint a new, more reform-minded, commissioner. Annucci recently limited the types of packages for prisoners to just a few private firms — as part of a crackdown on contraband. Family and friends are no longer allowed to personally bring items to prisons. 

“He’s bringing us back to a pre-Attica period with the oppressive and Draconian rules he’s putting in place,” said Jerome Wright, the co-director of the Halt Solitary campaign. “He needs to be replaced before we have an Attica 2.0 situation on our hands.”

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