Despite its sizable population of over 2.3 million people, Queens until recently existed off the national political radar. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Congressman Joe Crowley, the Democratic Party boss of Queens, has placed a spotlight on the shifting demographics of the New York City borough.
As next year’s race for district attorney in Queens begins to take shape, one likely candidate, City Council Member Rory Lancman, is positioning himself as a counterpart to Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, the progressive criminal justice version of Ocasio-Cortez.
Whether Lancman can match Krasner’s credentials is an open question. But what’s not in dispute is that Queens is wide-open terrain for reform. District Attorney Richard Brown, who turns 86 this fall, has held the office since 1991. His name is rarely mentioned in any discussion of criminal justice innovation.
“There is a growing national movement for prosecutor accountability, and it’s coming to Queens,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, a statewide activist organization. Brown, he says, has long been “way out of step with progressive reform, from his resistance to ending the Rockefeller drug laws to his opposition to closing Rikers.”
Brown is also one of the leading opponents of prosecutor accountability in New York State. In June, he urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to veto a pending bill that would establish a commission to address patterns of prosecutorial misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions. Brown was first appointed to the DA’s office by Cuomo’s father Mario (to fill a vacancy), meaning his word may carry added weight with the governor.
Veteran defense lawyers point out that Queens is also the only one of the five New York City DA offices that has yet to approve or launch a conviction review unit, which Brown steadfastly opposes. Conviction review units (sometimes known as conviction integrity units) have popped up around the country to prevent and address false convictions. While their record is mixed at best, they are generally seen as a step toward reform.
Rita Dave, who has handled exoneration cases across the city, says that Queens “is in desperate need of an independent CRU. A vast number [of wrongful conviction] cases have already been identified, leading to reversals and/or exonerations based on prosecutorial misconduct.” Ron Kuby, a prominent defense attorney who has fought to overturn convictions by Brown’s office, acidly notes that the next Queens DA “will need to recognize some of the advances made in criminal justice over the last 100 years.” Brown’s spokesperson declined to comment.
Lancman supports both the bill creating the prosecutorial misconduct commission and the creation of a conviction review unit in Queens. He also has a strong track record as an elected official on both issues. As a member of the State Assembly, he called attention to the problem of criminal cases based on coerced confessions. And in 2016, as chair of the New York City Council’s courts committee, he held a hearing addressing the problem of wrongful convictions in the five boroughs.
Lancman says that he would follow Krasner’s example by bringing in someone from outside the office to run the unit. “There needs to be distance between oversight figures and the prosecutors who have been in the office for many years,” he says. Brooklyn far and away has the most active conviction review unit in the city, with 24 exonerations since 2014 under the late DA Ken Thompson and his successor, current DA Eric Gonzalez. However, the unit is run by Mark Hale, a 35-year veteran of the office, making internal politics a stumbling block in some cases.
As council member from central Queens since 2014, Lancman has been a leading supporter of many criminal justice reform issues, including closing Rikers, ending marijuana arrests, and scaling down penalties for low-level crimes. Despite his position on Rikers, the city’s corrections union has continued to support Lancman, giving him the maximum allowed donation in his 2013 and 2017 campaigns. According to Lancman, his “commitment to closing Rikers is driven in part by my commitment to keeping corrections officers safe, and [the union] appreciates that even if they don’t agree with me on closing Rikers itself.”
Still, the contributions may raise eyebrows among criminal justice reform advocates, who are already troubled by Lancman’s 2015 support as a council member for adding 1,300 new NYPD officers during a period when crime rates have been consistently dropping in the city. There was near-unanimity between the progressive City Council and Mayor de Blasio on the issue, but critics still questioned the move. Lancman says he has “no regrets, because the new cops were needed to establish ‘neighborhood policing.’” The added community outreach by officers is popular among business owners on Jamaica Avenue, Lancman notes, though he acknowledges that neighborhood policing often leads to more “broken windows” enforcement of low-level crimes.
Some advocates are also concerned that Lancman’s strident opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is critical of Israel, could lead to crackdowns on activism. He has described BDS as “hate speech” and “illegal.” Nevertheless, Lancman insists that Queens residents “can count on me to protect views I disagree with,” and says that he has worked closely with the sizable Muslim population (many Bangladeshi) in his district.
Whereas Krasner offered the experience of a seasoned defense attorney, Lancman would carry the baggage of an elected official into the DA’s race. There are still 13 months until the September 2019 primary, and it’s possible that another candidate may run to the left of Lancman; others will most likely run to his right. But given that Richard Brown has run unopposed since 1991, the presence of multiple challengers in the race for DA would be a welcome change in Queens.
In 1988, when Roy Bolus was barely 18, he was arrested in connection with the murder of two men during a robbery in Albany, New York. Despite never having fired any shots, Bolus was convicted of felony murder and is serving the 30th year of an 80-years-to-life sentence. He will not be eligible for parole until 2068, when he’s 98 years old.
When Bolus heard in 2015 about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s creation of an Executive Clemency Bureau to help identify incarcerated people in New York State who could be eligible for a pardon or reduced sentence, he assumed it just wasn’t for him.
“The case, being a violent case … I just thought this would be something where the governor and the clemency bureau would just say ‘nah,’” Bolus explained over the phone from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Albany. “They wouldn’t even look at me.”
But in December 2016, when Bolus heard that Cuomo had granted clemency to Judith Clark, the political activist who acted as a getaway driver in a 1981 robbery involving three homicides, he realized he had a chance. “I was like, ‘Oh shoot, if that can happen for her, that can happen for me. I’m going to give it a shot!’” Bolus recalled.
There are two types of clemency: pardons, which expunge past convictions, with or without added conditions, and commutations, which release current prisoners or shorten their sentences.
Yet the road to clemency in New York State has been a slow one under Cuomo. Since taking office in 2011, the governor hasgranted only 12 commutations, and just two in 2017.
Cuomo’s office is quick to point out that he has pardoned dozens of immigrants facing deportation, conditionally pardoned scores of people convicted of crimes when they were under 18, and restored voting rights to thousands of parolees. But advocates say the slow pace of commutations raises questions about Cuomo’s commitment to clemency.
“When you announce a clemency initiative and you raise hopes and expectations, frankly it’s cruel to not actualize it,” said Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, which is currently helping about 25 people with clemency applications and worked with Judith Clark on her application. “Multiple people on the inside have told me that false hope is worse than no hope at all.”
For people like Bolus, who were incarcerated at a young age and have spent most their lives inside maximum security prisons, clemency represents their best chance to ever experience the outside world again.
A new focus on clemency
Criminal justice reformers have increasingly focused on the power of clemency as governors nationwide look to reduce their states’ prison populations. New York State, which began its decarceration project in the early 2000s, well before other large states, had the biggest reduction in prisoners in the country from 2000 to 2010, as the state drastically altered how it dealt with nonviolent offenders. After hitting a high of 72,899 prisoners at the end of 1999, that number dropped to 55,436 by late 2011. But since then, New York State has “hit a wall,” says Fordham University law professor John Pfaff. Over the last seven years, it has been able to reduce its prison population by only approximately 6,000 people. That’s largely because the state hasn’t changed the long sentences consistently meted out to those convicted of violent crimes.
“New York has a lot to be proud of,” Pfaff told The Appeal. “But the decline is going to stop until we start turning to violent offenses soon. And the decline is going to stop at a population that was much higher than it was in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
That’s where clemency comes in. It offers hope to people like Ray Bolus who have decades left on their sentences before they are even eligible for parole. (Judith Clark was granted a parole board hearing 40 years before she would otherwise be eligible; the board denied her parole at her first hearing in 2017.)
Cuomo created the Executive Clemency Bureau to identify individuals who had “made exceptional strides in self-development and improvement,” seeking to reinvigorate and streamline the process, which was little used in his first term. Cuomo did not issue a single clemency during his first two years in office, and applications for clemency in New York State dropped from 1,269 in 2010 to 171 in 2014. Now, with law firms devoting pro bono assistance worth millions of dollars, and nonprofits agreeing to handle hundreds of clemency applications, those application numbers have begun to climb—even as the number of actual commutations has barely budged.
Critics say that’s because of the guidelines Cuomo set when he introduced the clemency board, requiring, for instance, that a prisoner has served at least half of his or her minimum prison term, and is not eligible for parole within a year of the date of the application for clemency. That eliminates both people serving extremely long sentences, like Bolus, who has yet to complete half of his sentence, in addition to people who have exceeded their minimum sentence but are repeatedly denied parole.
As Mariame Kaba, a founding member of Survived and Punished, a network that works with criminalized and imprisoned survivors of gender-based violence, told The Appeal’s Victoria Law in June, “We are perplexed by the rules he set for himself. They’re incredibly narrow and leave out an incredible number of people.”
Asking the state to rethink how it deals with violent offenders is the next frontier in criminal justice reform and New York’s decarceration project, explains Zeidman of the Criminal Defense Clinic.
“These people have been essentially sentenced to die in prison,” he said. Zeidman flips through a binder, showing the hundreds of letters requesting help he’s received in the three years he’s been working on clemency applications. The letters are primarily from two separate groups of people: those who have been repeatedly denied parole even though they are years past their mandatory minimum sentences, and those still facing decades in prison before they ever see the parole board.
The idea that of the 52,000 people in prison in New York State, there aren’t thousands who, under anyone’s definition of clemency, merit clemency? It’s ludicrous, of course there are.Steve Zeidman, Criminal Defense Clinic
Despite overhauling the application system, Cuomo still lags behind many of his predecessors when it comes to commutations. Former New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican, commuted 32 people in his 12 years in office. Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, issued 37 commutations in 12 years in office. And those numbers pale beside those of former Governor Hugh L. Carey, who granted 155 pardons and commutations between 1975 and 1982, right before New York’s prison population began to skyrocket.
Nationwide, clemency remains a power rarely used by governors, with only 15 states granting frequent and regular pardons or commutations to more than 30 percent of applicants. According to an analysis by the New York Times, New York governors have granted clemency to fewer than one in 100 applicants since 2006, with the exception of David A. Paterson, who granted clemency at a rate of about three in 100.
”There have been precious few clemencies granted,” Zeidman said, in reference to the number of applications submitted under Andrew Cuomo. “The idea that of the 52,000 people in prison in New York State, there aren’t thousands who, under anyone’s definition of clemency, merit clemency? It’s ludicrous, of course there are. I’m seeing them in the letters.”
A life in prison
According to his friends and family, Bolus, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, has transformed himself over the past 30 years. When he was arrested, he was just a few months shy of beginning college orientation at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island but had started associating with a group of friends connected to the drug trade. It was an attempt, he has said, to help provide for a young daughter.
Bolus has earned associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in prison, and is pursuing a doctorate. It hasn’t been easy for him to access education, either, especially since federal Pell grants were taken away from prisoners as part of the omnibus crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Bolus began creating curriculums for himself and other incarcerated people, becoming a teacher in a program focused on HIV prevention. He plans to continue teaching incarcerated people if he’s granted clemency and eventually paroled, and wants to develop a curriculum that can be taught throughout state prisons.
“Being from the same places that a lot of the other guys in here are from, I understand something that I don’t think the criminal justice system understands about imprisonment and survival and getting out and people being different,” he said. “That’s something that I think society doesn’t have that I have to offer.”
Zeidman is also working on a clemency application for one of Bolus’s five co-defendants, Alphonse Riley-James, who was also sentenced to decades in prison even though he, like Bolus, did not fire a shot. Riley-James and Bolus were with a group of other young men who had traveled from Brooklyn to Albany to rob a rival drug dealer’s safe; during the robbery, two men guarding the safe, George Mosley and William Patterson, were killed. Riley-James was sentenced to 50 years to life and is scheduled to see the parole board for the first time in 2038, when he is 68.
Bolus’s and Riley-James’s sentences came after a spate of “tough on crime” laws passed in the 1970s, as New York pivoted in the midst of rising crime rates from a model focused on rehabilitation to one that focused instead on incarceration. In 1973, New York passed the infamous Rockefeller drug laws, instituting mandatory minimums for drug possession, and in 1978, the state legislature passed new violent offender laws, mandating minimum sentences for certain violent offenses (like felony murder), and limiting plea deals to the specific crimes with which people were charged. To accept a plea deal on a violent felony, for instance, the defendant would have to plead to a violent felony rather than to a lesser charge that might have carried a lighter sentence. The result was a significant rise in the state’s prison population.
What is the upside of [the governor] paroling any sort of risky, high-profile case? He’s not going to get a lot of credit for it, but if something goes wrong, he’ll take a lot of flak.John Pfaff, Fordham University
The fact that Bolus and Riley-James were from Brooklyn but being tried in an Albany courthouse probably didn’t help them gain any leniency in sentencing, reflects Zeidman. County Court Judge Joseph Harris, who ruled on both cases, was known, along with a fellow judge, for harsh sentences.
“They were giving out sentences like popcorn,” Bertrand F. Gould, a former Albany public defender told journalist Jennifer Gonnerman for her 2004 book on the Rockefeller drug laws, Life on the Outside. Gould, who worked in the office from 1968-2000, told Gonnerman that rather than impose minimum sentences for drug crimes, the judges often went for the maximum. Black defendants like Bolus and Riley-James often bore the brunt of that. “It was, ‘We’ll teach those blacks to come up here and sell their damn drugs in Albany.’ … I’m not sure whether it was provincial or racist. Maybe a combination of the two.”
A political calculation
The act of clemency itself comes with certain politicals risks, even if a governor is just shaving decades off a sentence so an individual convicted of a violent offense can see a parole board sooner. The March parole of Herman Bell, the 70-year-old former Black Panther convicted in the 1971 shooting deaths of two New York police officers, set off a firestorm of criticism of the state’s parole board, even from self-described progressive politicians like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The type of controversy that commutations generate might be something that Governor Cuomo, who is thought to harbor presidential ambitions, would want to steer clear of. But he’s currently facing a primary challenge from insurgent candidate Cynthia Nixon, who many observers say has pushed him to the left. By focusing on pardoning those who have already served out their sentences and been released, Cuomo has been able to avoid controversy while improving the lives of formerly incarcerated people.
“What is the upside of [the governor] paroling any sort of risky, high-profile case?” asks Pfaff. “He’s not going to get a lot of credit for it, but if something goes wrong, he’ll take a lot of flak.”
Complicating matters even more is Cuomo’s tight relationship with upstate Republicans, whose constituency relies on the jobs produced by mass incarceration in the state. “If Governor Cuomo were to engage in wholesale clemency, that’s going to shrink prison populations, and what that’s going to do is going to cause prison closures in upstate New York,” Pfaff continued. “You’re going to face tremendous opposition in Albany from Republicans because it will cost them jobs in communities where prisons are often the main driver of employment.”
Nixon has seized on criminal justice as a central issue in her campaign, chastising Cuomo for failing to reform the state’s cash bail system, its rules governing prosecutors, and its approach to law enforcement officers who commit misconduct. In her platform, she also singles out commutations and pardons as an area on which she would differ greatly from Cuomo.
“The Governor has virtually unlimited power to grant commutations,” Nixon said in a statement to The Appeal. “However, he has implemented wholly arbitrary guidelines that severely and needlessly limit people’s access to clemency.”
In her statement, Nixon specifically highlighted survivors of domestic violence as being among those worthy of commutation. “As Governor, I would prioritize pardons and commutations for the sentences of survivors of domestic violence and rape, who were or remain incarcerated for their self-defense,” she said.
Going beyond commutations, Nixon has also proposed permitting the parole board to evaluate all people over age 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible release, even if they have not yet completed their minimum sentences.
He was on the way to college when he made a wrong turn. For that, he’s paid 30 years in prison.Ada Bolus, Roy's wife
In response to a request for comment from The Appeal, the Cuomo campaign said “the governor has led the way on clemency reform—establishing the state’s first pro-bono clemency program in 2015 [which matches incarcerated people with lawyers offering free help with their clemency applications], taking first-in-the-nation action to grant conditional pardons to more than 100 16- and 17-year-olds, and announcing a landmark pro-bono clemency coalition to expand access to services after Trump disbanded the federal program.” If Cuomo is re-elected, his campaign says “New York will continue to lead the way in ensuring and increasing access to clemency, promoting rehabilitation and creating a fairer, more just New York for all.”
Waiting for mercy
Bolus maintains close relationships with several members of his family, in both New York and North Carolina, and even got married six years ago, while incarcerated, to a social worker who lives nearby in upstate New York. It was his wife, Ada Bolus, who prepared his clemency application, and forwarded it to Zeidman to submit it to the governor.
“He was sentenced to 80 years in prison when he was 18 years old. He was on the way to college when he made a wrong turn. For that, he’s paid 30 years in prison,” Ada Bolus told The Appeal. “His family needs him. Society needs people like Roy. We can give him the second chance that nobody gave him when he was 18.”
Anthony Dixon, who now works helping people recently released from prison find employment, met Bolus in 2009, while they were both incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility. Dixon was serving a sentence of 30 years to life.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb; it was like he didn’t belong here,” Dixon said. ”He had a radiance about him that younger people would look to him. It was just amazing to see people incarcerated for that long have that kind of energy about them.”
Unlike people paroled in their 70s or 80s or who receive “compassionate” releases because of failing health, Bolus is just 48 and could lead a long life outside prison—but only if the governor lets him.
“I don’t think someone can fake 25 years of caring for other human beings. I don’t think a person can fake 25 years of educating myself,” he said. “I don’t think people serving these types of sentences come out of prison wearing a mask. … This is who they are.”
Staying positive despite the overwhelming odds against his eventual release can be difficult, Bolus acknowledges, but he credits his deep religious faith, as well as the connections he has made with other prisoners, as a source of hope that he will one day be free.
“There’s so many people cheering me on,” Bolus said. “I can feel that something’s changing.”
This story is part of a series that The Appeal is co-publishing with Gothamist, a nonprofit news outlet focusing on New York City.
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who received both national attention and scorn for his handling of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is up for re-election Tuesday, hoping to fend off a reformist challenger for a seat he has held for nearly three decades.
Tuesday’s primary is the first contested race for McCulloch, 67, since his office declined to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, an unarmed Black teen. McCulloch’s status as a high-profile, longtime incumbent is expected to work to his advantage in securing an eighth term in office. Still, voters are heading to the polls just two days before the anniversary of Brown’s death—a test of whether McCulloch’s stronghold can withstand pressure from a region that sparked a nationwide reckoning over criminal justice reform.
Challenging him is Wesley Bell, a two-term Ferguson City Council member with experience as a public defender, municipal judge, and prosecutor. Bell rose to prominence in a wave of Black leaders who were elected after the Ferguson protests highlighted a glaring lack of diversity in local government. He has since helped establish new police accountability and court reforms in Ferguson, efforts he now hopes to replicate through countywide office.
“People realize the need for change, they realize the need for criminal justice reform,” Bell, 43, said. “When we talk about reforming the cash bail system or ending mass incarceration, I wouldn’t call those radical. I would call those policies that work and help people.”
The race realigns focus on the fallout from the Ferguson protests and the rounds of criticism that followed McCulloch at virtually every juncture. Early on, McCulloch’s cozy relationship with law enforcement raised questions of his ability to remain impartial. Despite that, he resisted calls to appoint a special prosecutor in the case. He further inflamedcritics by taking an unorthodox approach toward the grand jury process, in which his office plied jurors with volumes of documents and testimony, yet never offered recommendations on whether to indict Wilson. McCulloch knew of at least one witness who most likely lied in her testimony, he admitted weeks later. Now, one Ferguson juror is suing for the right to publicly speak out about their experience, which they say contrasts McCulloch’s account of the process.
Compounding the tensions, McCulloch announced the non-indictment decision in a winding speech that pushed late into the evening, a move that sparked rounds of rioting and looting. At no point in his address did McCulloch mention that Brown was unarmed at the time of his death.
“He completely dropped the ball,” Bell said. “I don’t think anyone denies that the way that it was handled was incompetent—at best—and a sign of a need for change.”
McCulloch has stood by his handling of the Brown case. If anything, he has said, his office could have done a better job communicating to the public and explaining the grand jury process. McCulloch did not respond to request for comment.
The prosecutor had shown reluctance to prosecute police officers before Wilson’s case. In 2001, he declined to prosecute two undercover drug officers who fired 21 shots at two unarmed Black men at a Jack in the Box parking lot. McCulloch later concluded that the agents were justified in the shooting, and is on record describing the two victims as “bums.”
Local activists have since responded by trying to force McCulloch out of office. Some filed an ethics complaint against him and his two assistants. Others filed a lawsuit claiming McCulloch “never intended to prosecute” Wilson. Thousands more protested at the ballot box, with 11,000 write-in votes cast against McCulloch during the 2014 general election, even though he ran unopposed that year.
Demonstrations continue to this day. Activists are coming out in support of prominent Ferguson protester Joshua Williams, who was sentenced to eight years in prison after prosecutors from McCulloch’s office asked the court to “make an example” of him for setting fire to a convenience store during a 2014 protest. Last week, a state senator asked the governor to pardon Williams.
McCulloch is also facing pressure for his decision to adamantly defend the 2001 conviction of Marcellus Williams, who was put on death row for the fatal stabbing of a local reporter. In a rare move, the governor stepped in to halt Williams’s execution in light of new DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate him, even as McCulloch maintains there is “zero possibility” he is innocent.
On the campaign trail, McCulloch highlights his nearly three decades in office, noting that Bell has never tried a felony case as a prosecutor. “The public has the confidence in the job I’ve done,” McCulloch said during a candidate’s forum last month. “It takes experience. It takes knowledge. … This is an office that I would put up against any office in the country.”
Indeed, there are signs that the inertia of McCulloch’s incumbency is factoring into the race. The latest local polling, in June, placed McCulloch 18 points ahead of his opponent, with 46 percent of likely voters saying they would re-elect the incumbent. He has also outraised Bell by well over sixfold. According to the latest filings, McCulloch had amassed more than $750,000 in his campaign coffers, compared to Bell’s $120,000.
Activists see Tuesday’s primary as an opportunity to change the culture of an office that has aggressively pursued a “tough on crime” agenda. “Bob McCulloch represents institutional racism in criminal justice,” said Redditt Hudson, vice president of civil rights and advocacy at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and one of the four activists who sued to have McCulloch removed from office. “Wesley Bell represents the opportunity to create change.”
The stakes are high for this Democratic primary. Without a Republican on the ballot for county prosecutor, it’s down to only the match between McCulloch and Bell to decide who will advance unopposed for the general election in November. McCulloch has only faced three challengers over the course of his 27 years as St. Louis County prosecutor. No Republican has even appeared on the ballot since 1994. Taking note of that trend, national progressive organizations are stepping in to influence the outcome.
“We understand that Wesley Bell is a huge underdog in this race,” said Arisha Hatch, director of Color of Change PAC, a national group seeking to oust McCulloch. “But folks have gotten away with running unopposed for decades. In this work to reform the criminal justice system, sometimes that means getting involved in primaries and kicking out incumbents.”