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Rescue Mission for Governor Spitzer

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New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's approval rating is at an all-time low of 36%, according to a recent survey conducted by the Siena College Research Institute. This is a far cry from his 69% approval rating when he took office. The survey polled about one thousand voters in December, of which 47% said the governor should become a "kinder, gentler governor." But 41% of Republicans said they doubt whether the transformation can be made.

The question I pose is, "How can Gov. Spitzer counter his downward spiral and start winning back the voters of New York state?" One answer is to show the citizens of New York that, despite the negativity generated from the trials and tribulations of his governorship, he is still an individual who shows compassion for others. Compassion, a virtue found in many great leaders, is said to be not sentiment but the act of making justice through works of mercy.

With the coming holiday season in mind, I recommend that Gov. Spitzer go on a personal rescue mission and grant executive clemency to the large number of Rockefeller Drug Law prisoners who have fully rehabilitated themselves and already served enormous amounts of time behind bars under the draconian provisions of mandatory-minimum sentencing.

In granting a record number of clemencies, Spitzer would be following in the wake of recent trends that favor reducing racial disparities precipitated by the War on Drugs. Just last week the Supreme Court returned to judges their discretion over following the rigid structure of federal sentencing guidelines in drug cases, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission created changes in crack cocaine sentencing that would retroactively set free 20,000 prisoners.

Traditionally, at Christmas time New York's governor grants executive clemency to a number of individuals. Former Republican Gov. George Pataki granted 32 in his career, with 28 of them being Rockefeller Drug Law prisoners (point of disclosure: I was one of them[pdf]). Gov. Mario Cuomo granted 33 and Gov. Hugh Carey gave out 155. If granted clemency, a prisoner immediately becomes eligible for parole. Although parole is not guaranteed, the New York State Parole Board has released the majority of prisoners whose sentences were commuted.

Today there are almost 14,000 individuals imprisoned under the Rockefeller Drug Laws; 90% of them are black and Latino. Despite two minor reforms in 2004 and 2005, a welcomed first step, the majority of Rockefeller prisoners were not touched by the changes. Out of around 1,000 Rockefeller prisoners who became eligible for judicial relief, only about 450 regained their freedom because of procedural road blocks created by prosecutors. The New York Sentencing Commission appointed by Gov. Spitzer to review sentencing procedures failed to address Rockefeller reform in a preliminary report issued this November.

With the swipe of his pen, Gov. Spitzer could rise above this long-standing political quagmire that has prevented fully rehabilitated prisoners to reenter society and be reunited with their families.

For many of those who have fallen through the cracks of Rockefeller Drug Law reform, their only hope to regain their freedom is through the act of executive clemency. There will be many families praying this holiday season that Gov. Spitzer shows his compassion for those who have taken upon themselves to improve their lives and are ready to reenter society as productive citizens.