Cuomo Denies Clemency to Criminalized Survivors of Gender Violence
For the eighth straight year, Governor Cuomo has refused to use his clemency power to combat the rampant criminalization of efforts to survive sexual and domestic violence. Survived and Punished NY denounces the governor’s decision to double down on his inaction, effectively abandoning incarcerated survivors of gender violence.
Over the past year, Survived and Punished NY has corresponded and visited with dozens of criminalized survivors—people caged because their efforts to survive sexual and domestic violence were criminalized—as part of our #FreeThemNY campaign. We have compiled 15 criminalized survivors’ stories, with new stories coming in. These fighters agreed to take their stories public as part of a collective demand for recognition of their dignity and their right to survive.
Governor Cuomo could free these people today; indeed, he has indicated that his office would take a very close look at clemency applications for domestic violence survivors. Under the New York Constitution, Cuomo has the sole discretion and virtually unlimited power to grant clemency—either in the form of a pardon (erasing a criminal record), or a commutation of a sentence (reducing the length of a sentence so as to release someone earlier). After granting the first and only commutation of his eight-year tenure to a criminalized survivor, Valerie Seeley, in 2016, Cuomo’s Counsel said the governor “absolutely” planned to keep using clemency for criminalized survivors, and explained that his office had created a domestic violence “subgroup” because “we know that [survivors] have historically been incarcerated for domestic violence.” In the meantime, Cuomo continues to cast himself as a champion for survivors, for women in general, and for criminal justice.
Yet when it comes to criminalized survivors, Cuomo continues to be MIA. On New Year’s Eve, Cuomo granted a total of 29 clemencies—22 pardons and 7 commutations. This is wonderful for these individuals, their families, and their communities.. Yet none of the 29 clemencies benefited incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. Of the 29, only four women were pardoned, and not one woman received a commutation. This flies in the face of the fact that Black, Latina and Native women, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people, are the fastest growing populations in prison, all disproportionately affected by gender violence and mass incarceration. For survivors, women, and TGNC people, Cuomo’s cold shoulder to clemency contradicts his cultivated public image as a “champion” for gender and sexual violence.
In fact, Cuomo has no grounds on which to call himself a “champion” of anything related to criminal justice reform. Daily, there are close to 200,000 New Yorkers under correctional control, including 50,000 in prison and 27,000 in local jails (most because they cannot afford bail). Even compared to Republican governors, Cuomo is failing survivors, specifically women and TGNC people. This month, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown—who, at 16, was doing survival sex work and killed a client in self-defense—after years of pressure from organizers and her family. Also this month, Ohio Governor John Kasich granted clemency to Thomia Hunter, who killed her abusive ex-partner in self-defense. Kasich and Haslam—both Republicans with regressive criminal justice records—have recently outperformed Cuomo. In addition, it is worth noting that between 2011 and when he left office last month, Governor Jerry Brown pardoned 1,332 individuals. Despite having promised in 2015 to broaden the availability of clemency, Cuomo’s actions are paltry in comparison to his peers. Cuomo has still only commuted 19 sentences in eight years.
For Cuomo, clemency appears to be a way to brand himself in opposition to Trump and cast himself as a so-called progressive. Pardoning immigrants facing deportation appears to be the predominant theme in Cuomo’s clemency grants, which Cuomo positions as a rebuke to Trump’s “war on our immigrant communities.” Survived and Punished celebrates that some are spared deportation as a collateral benefit of Cuomo’s public relations campaign, but Cuomo’s thirst for national headlines (and possibly national office) has not translated into concrete benefits for criminalized survivors. Perhaps, if principle alone isn’t enough, Governor Cuomo should do more than pay lip service to the #MeToo movement and diversify his headline-seeking by taking action against gender violence as well.
Criminalizing survivors “disappear[s] them into the system,” ensuring they no longer exist in the mind of the public. Cuomo reinforces this disappearance and disposability by abandoning survivors to the criminal punishment system, often condemning them to relive the gender violence in prison. His actions indicate that he views survivors as categorically undeserving of clemency.
We are watching Governor Cuomo. We demand that he keep his promise on clemency and use this power to free criminalized survivors—not next New Year’s eve—but now, and continuously throughout the year.
Survived and Punished (S&P) is a national collective that organizes to decriminalize efforts to survive domestic and sexual violence, support and free criminalized survivors, and abolish gender violence, policing, prisons, and deportations. S&P has affiliates in New York City, Chicago, and California statewide. Follow us here.