Despite its status as a progressive state, New York state is reported to have a prison population that ranks higher than other countries.
While Governor Cuomo did order the release of 3,109 New Yorkers who were either incarcerated for nonviolent offenses and 90 days away from the end of their sentence or pregnant as well as postpartum women within 180 days away from their official release, there are thousands more serving life sentences who may not even be eligible for parole.
It is with these statistics in mind that Releasing Aging People in Prison (or RAPP) started the #CuomoLetThemGo campaign in March of 2020, the month the pandemic first hit. Thus far, only 12 individuals have been granted clemency since the pandemic began.
The New York-based organization works to free elderly inmates from prison who have more than done their time. Some of these individuals have possible mental health-related conditions that cannot be treated in a prison setting.
RAPP’s Associate Director David George shared his thoughts on the Governor’s reluctance to grant clemency to these thousands of individuals.
“No one should be disposable, and especially shouldn’t be disposable without any consideration for who they become during their years and decades in prison,” he said.
As law enforcement comes under a higher level of scrutiny than ever before, it is creating discussion among activists and lawmakers across the country on reimagining public safety. Part of this discussion has involved how to treat those that have already been locked up.
George weighed in on the debate over how to reform policing and punishment for those who have committed crimes or minor infractions.
“There are 1,000,001 ways that we could engage people with mental health issues in this country, that don’t require them to sit in a cage in isolation,” he said. “It’s a shame that there are some people that value punishment and incarceration more than they do support services that objectively are more proven to work than the more traditional approach we’ve taken.”
The nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative recently conducted a survey which states that the majority want to see their tax dollars go towards mental health and addiction recovery (58%), housing and stability assistance (57%), and education and youth programming (53%) in combatting violence.
In 2016, Time Magazine presented a report from the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University, which pointed to the fact that out of the two million or so who were incarcerated, 25 percent were nonviolent offenders. Fourteen percent were people who had already served the appropriate time for their crime and were overdue for clemency.
George also stands firm against the death penalty, which he believes is harmful to even the worst of offenders.
“We live in sort of an eye for an eye society with our system of criminalization and mass incarceration,” he said. “I think that there are a lot of people including a lot of victims or survivors that don’t believe in that vision of justice.”
The most recent Gallup poll on the issue of the death penalty somewhat concurs with George’s views. While 55 percent still support the death penalty for those who have committed violent crimes, that number is at the lowest level since 1966.
Changing public views certainly help George’s cause. He remains hopeful that the tide will turn on criminal justice reform.
‘I think we have to always have hope,” he said. “I think when we stop engaging in this sort of work is the day we lose hope. Because hope is often the only thing we got.”
For more information on #CuomoLetThemGo and RAPP’s other work, visit https://cuomoletthemgo.com