Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attitude on criminal justice has swung wildly in recent years. In 2016 he vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have strengthened New York’s public defense system, and he has rarely used his clemency powers. But this year Cuomo announced that he would restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of people by issuing pardons, and signed a bill establishing an independent commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.
In the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, Cuomo faces Cynthia Nixon, who has claimed credit for pushing the governor leftward—including over his use of pardons. Nixon’s campaign has emphasized criminal justice reform. She “made legalizing recreational marijuana the first policy plank of her campaign for governor, framing it as a necessary step toward reducing racial inequities in the criminal justice system,” Vivian Wang reported in the New York Times in April.
In August, The Appeal published an in-depth article by Emma Whitford on Cuomo and Nixon’s agendas. In exploring their views on policing, pretrial detention, discovery rules, clemency, and other criminal justice issues, Whitford notes important areas of agreement (closing Rikers Island, for one). But she also details divergences in the scope of their proposals. For instance, Nixon is running on eliminating all solitary confinement via executive order. And while Cuomo proposes “ending cash bail for people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies,”Nixon wishes to end it “regardless of the arresting charge.” In addition, some reform advocates are urging both candidates to be more ambitious in some areas, for instance on guidelines they are proposing for clemency and for parole review. “We have 10,000 people serving life sentences, and that’s where the governor has to zero in on,” says Steve Zeidman, a professor at City University of New York School of Law.