Under the New York State Constitution, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners “upon such conditions and with such limitation, as he may think proper” (excluding for crimes of treason or impeachment). Most states in the U.S. give the extraordinary power of clemency to governors (or at least in some hybrid arrangement with a parole board). The issue is currently in the news because of the recent shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington State, allegedly by Maurice Clemmons, whose prison sentence in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The speculation is that the willingness of Huckabee, who ran an upstart presidential campaign in 2008, to grant clemency may hurt his presidential ambitions in 2012. It is in this context that I noticed an excellent post on The New York Times’ City Room blog on this very issue. It begins:
This month Gov. David A. Paterson will be mulling the fate of roughly 150 inmates in New York prisons who have formally applied for clemency in the hope of having their prison sentences shortened or their criminal convictions forgiven.
It is a traditional — if increasingly rare — holiday gesture of mercy. Over three and a half decades the number of inmates who have had their sentences commuted or convictions pardoned has steadily dropped.
The post’s author, A.G. Sulzberger, goes on to say that unfortunately, many governors now weigh the political consequences of granting clemency, particularly if they are to soon to go before the electorate. Prison advocates like Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, fear that this year, Gov. Paterson, facing low poll numbers and the upcoming election, will grant clemency to few, if any, inmates.
Similarly, in 2006, when then-Gov. George E. Pataki was mulling over a 2008 presidential run, he declined to grant clemency to any inmates.
One wonders then, whether he would have been willing to commute the prison sentence of Elaine Bartlett in 2000 if he had faced an upcoming election (his next was in 2002) or considered vying for a spot on the Republican presidential ticket that year. I recently finished the book,“Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” which tells Bartlett’s story of serving a 20-to-life sentence for a first-time drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws until Pataki commuted her sentence after 16 years. It was tough enough for Bartlett to receive clemency when Pataki did not face the circumstances described above, so I can only imagine if he had. She probably would have served at least another four years, when in truth, she should have been granted clemency after ten (half of the minimum of the sentence). But in 1995, Pataki had just been elected in the mold of a “law-and-order” Republican — surely not someone who was going to be granting clemency.
But after watching this clip of Pataki last week — considered a dark-horse for the 2012 Republican presidential nod — drawing a contrast between his record and that of Huckabee, I get the feeling that Elaine Bartlett was lucky to have received a commutation at all.