News & Politics

Ahead of Christmas, Hochul grants pardons and commutations to 16 people

Advocates celebrated the clemencies but criticized a system that treats pardons and commutations as rare gifts bestowed upon extraordinary individuals instead of tools for systematic justice.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a press conference on Dec. 19, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a press conference on Dec. 19, 2023. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul granted clemency to 16 people on Friday just ahead of the holiday weekend, as advocates for incarcerated New Yorkers continue to urge her to use her gubernatorial powers to cut prison sentences short and strip convictions away with greater frequency.

"Through the clemency process, it is my solemn responsibility as governor to recognize the efforts individuals have made to improve their lives and show that redemption is possible,” Hochul said in a statement Friday. "When I took office, I committed to improving this process and dedicated the resources needed to grant clemency on a rolling basis. My administration will continue working to ensure this process serves New Yorkers in the best way possible."

New York governors have long chosen to grant a cluster of clemencies around the holiday season, wielding a sweeping, sparingly used power to reunite families and grant mercy with the stroke of a pen. When Hochul stepped into office on the heels of a predecessor who was criticized by advocates for underusing his clemency power, she made bold promises to reform the state’s clemency process. She vowed to increase transparency and accountability and committed to granting clemencies on a rolling basis instead of solely around the holiday season – a promise that advocates met with cautious enthusiasm. 

The governor has largely kept that commitment, granting seven people clemencies in April followed by another wave of 13 clemencies in September and the final 16 clemencies on Friday – for a total of 36 people granted clemency this year, out of 1,595 applications.

But two years after Hochul’s vow to reform the process, advocates say that the promised complete revitalization and overhaul of the clemency system has yet to come to fruition. Friday’s news about the 16 people garnered a complex mixture of joy for those who did receive clemency and pain for the many others who did not. 

Since taking office, Hochul has granted 59 people clemency, though the majority of those have been pardons – which are less controversial than commutations since they only apply to people who have already completed their prison sentences. Only four of the clemencies issued Friday were commutations, which have the power to shorten the sentence of someone who is currently incarcerated. 

“For the individuals who get relief it’s so meaningful for them, their families and their communities,” said Ted Hausman, supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau. But Hausman said that while the governor’s clemencies are a step in the right direction, he remains disappointed in the small scale of Hochul’s clemency action. 

“Clemency is such a unique power and we think with such a unique, broad power comes the obligation to use it in a way that is more systemic in scale because there are so many individuals in prison for whom a second look is appropriate,” he said. 

Progress made

Progress in the wake of Hochul’s vow to reform the clemency process was initially sluggish, with few reforms implemented in 2022. The governor’s office has since convened a Clemency Advisory Panel – composed of experts including a former prison superintendent, a former state court judge and a criminal defense attorney – to assist with clemency decisions. To bolster transparency in what’s historically been often a confusing, discouraging process, the Executive Clemency Bureau also implemented a new policy to send regular letters to people with clemency applications to keep them posted on their case status and launched an updated web hub to support applicants.

Perhaps most significantly, Hochul increased staffing resources for application reviews, aiding her promise to process clemency requests on a rolling basis instead of only at the end of the year. This in particular has been welcomed by advocates who have long pushed for a more routine approach to clemency after so many years of the disproportionate policing and over-incarceration of Black and brown New Yorkers.

Steve Zeidman, a CUNY School of Law professor who leads a criminal defense clinic within the school that works with people seeking clemency, commended the governor for devoting more staff, time and attention to reviewing and vetting applications. But he said that, ultimately, the small number of clemencies that the governor has granted amount to just a “proverbial drop in the ocean.”

“To me, the power that the governor has – it’s not there to be used sparingly,” Zeidman said. “Either I have this vast constitutional power to use it on a very limited basis – which to me makes no sense – or I have the power to use it as appropriate. To me, that means rectifying the 6,500 people serving life sentences, many of whom should be home and are no threat to public safety. They’ve done everything they can to change and grow and yet they are destined to perish in prison.”

The “right kind” of applicant

Clemency, an umbrella term for the power granted solely to governors, can take two different forms – a sentence commutation or a pardon. The latter is far less controversial. Pardons apply to people who have served their time and are now looking for formal forgiveness from the state. Often, these individuals are facing deportation proceedings and need a clear record to remain in the United States. Commutations are far more politically volatile – particularly when the individual applying for clemency was convicted of a violent crime, even if it was decades ago or they were a teenager at the time. 

According to Zeidman, commutations are very rarely granted to anyone convicted of a serious violent crime like homicide. Most of the four people granted commutations on Friday had been convicted of burglary or robbery; only one had been convicted of homicide.

Momentum has been building for more commutations in recent years after use of the power declined significantly in recent decades. There were zero commutations granted between 2010 and 2015, according to Zeidman, but 55 commutations have been granted since 2015. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was responsible for 41 of those commutations, which included many people who had been convicted of violent crimes, even homicide. So far, Hochul has seemed less willing to grant clemency to people convicted of violent crimes. 

“We can’t go backwards there,” Zeidman said. “So many people have atoned, repaired, come to grips with all the decisions that led to that moment. They’re now grown. They’re mature, they recognize the damage they've done. To me, there has to be a place to value and recognize that kind of adaptation … people have to deal with the consequences of what they cause, the question is does that mean you’ve forfeited your right to ever walk free?”

Packaging a person

Hochul’s press release announcing the latest round of pardons and commutations states that clemency recognizes “individuals demonstrating remorse, exemplifying rehabilitation, and displaying a commitment to improving themselves and their communities.” It’s true that clemency is generally a tool reserved for the most exemplary, stand-out individuals – individuals with extraordinary stories, who have often earned degrees and other achievements or become community leaders. Plenty of people who have undergone rehabilitation will be denied clemency – or discouraged from ever applying in the first place – just because their story can’t be easily packaged or they don’t look “exceptional” on paper. 

“Clemency definitely does rely on this narrative of exceptionality, of ‘you’re one of the good ones,’ and that is inherently flawed,” said Matt Nadel, a documentary filmmaker who makes videos about people applying for clemency to bolster their applications. “Often, people feel like by sticking out their chests and talking about how amazing they’ve been in prison, they are implying that other people aren’t so great, and we have to assure them that’s not true.”

Many advocates for incarcerated people feel that framing clemency as a ceremonial and magnanimous honor reserved for only the most extraordinary people needs to be shifted to a process that is far more normalized and routine. 

“Obviously, the presence of our loved ones is a gift and so I couldn’t be more relieved for the families of people who were granted clemency,” said MK Kaishian, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney. “But continuing to create that sort of mythology around it, having it be around Christmas time and bestowed like some huge honor upon a select few families of New Yorkers who spent way too long in prison, I think continues to create a system where we expect so little.”