Spitzer puts clemency in cooler

Advocates for inmates expected governor to show more compassion

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Saturday, December 29, 2007

ALBANY - Going against gubernatorial tradition and the practice of his predecessors, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has not granted any executive clemencies this holiday season.

That's prompted criticism from prisoner advocates, who said he missed an opportunity to improve his plummeting approval ratings by showing mercy and letting worthy inmates out of prison early after they've served many years behind bars. "He's behaving like Ebenezer Scrooge," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York State. "We expected mercy and a big heart from him, with so many prisoners awaiting clemency. It's very disappointing."

A total of 333 of the 63,500 inmates in the state prison system met the requirements this year to apply for executive clemency, also known as a commutation of sentence. That power was granted to the governor in the state constitution of 1777.

Spitzer did grant a pardon last week, to Frederick Lake, a Jamaican immigrant who spent six years in prison for robbery. Lake has lived in Brooklyn with his wife and sons since 1997, and Spitzer's pardon spared Lake from deportation.

By comparison, the three previous governors, each of whom served multiple terms, used the clemency power freely: Pataki, 32 times; Cuomo, 37 times; and Carey, 155 times.

Spitzer does not have a formal policy on the practice, said Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman. "We carefully review clemency and pardon requests on a case-by-case basis," she said.

Anthony Papa is disappointed by Spitzer's dearth of clemencies and pardons. He was granted clemency on Dec. 23, 1996, by Pataki, who was cast as a law-and-order Republican after winning election with a call to reinstate the death penalty. Papa, who's now a prisoner advocate, said the conventional wisdom was that Spitzer, a Democrat, would be a kinder, gentler governor on matters of crime and punishment.

"It totally floored me that Spitzer didn't show some compassion and give clemencies," said Papa, who served 12 years of his 15-to-life sentence for a drug conviction.

"Spitzer could be countering his downward spiral in the polls by showing some mercy with clemencies. Instead, he's playing it safe politically," said Papa, author of a memoir, "15 to Life." He's a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group headquartered in New York that is working to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The director of Prison Families of New York, based in Albany was also disappointed.

"The governor knows there are many cases that were overly sentenced and this is his opportunity to make a political statement," said Alison Coleman.

Exercising the power of executive clemency carries a political risk, especially for those with presidential aspirations, as Cuomo and governors of other states discovered.

"The use of the pardoning power of a governor of a state is constantly subject to severe criticism from many sources," Edward G. Griffin, counsel to Gov. Al Smith, wrote in 1928.

When Smith ran for president that year, he was attacked for his record number of clemencies in 1924: 92 pardons and 79 commutations of sentences.

Gangi said Spitzer's approach is particularly vexing to prison advocates who applauded his campaign platform of repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws and reforming Pataki's harsh stance on parole.

"We applaud the governor for appointing progressive people to key criminal justice positions in his administration," Gangi said. "But that has not yet translated into his taking progressive positions, and I hope this doesn't signal that he's taking a hard-line stance on criminal justice issues."

There are other avenues for inmates; Cheri O'Donoghue tried several ways on behalf of her son, Ashley, 24, who was denied clemency by Spitzer after serving four years of a 7-to-21-year sentence on a cocaine sale conviction while he was a student at Hamilton College.

"It's a shame because I expected a whole lot more out of Governor Spitzer based on his inaugural speech about Day One," said O'Donoghue, of Manhattan, who volunteers as a prisoner advocate.

Her son applied and was accepted for a work-release program. He'll be transferred in February to a Manhattan facility that allows furloughs and other privileges as a reward for good behavior.

"Luckily, we didn't pin all our hopes on Governor Spitzer because he's not the savior that prison families expected after all those years of Pataki," she said.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.

****FACT BOX:****

At a glanceA history of executive clemencies and pardons: Gov. Eliot Spitzer: 1 (2007) Gov. George Pataki: 32 (1995-2006) Gov. Mario Cuomo: 37 (1983-1994) Gov. Hugh Carey: 155* (1975-1982) *Includes 61 special consideration clemencies when drug laws were revised.

Source: State Division of Parole