Last week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who recently told a teachers’ union audience that he was an “undocumented person,” pulled another publicity stunt with an executive order that, as the New York Times reports, “could open the ballot box to more than 35,000 people.” And not just any people—“felons on parole.” The move comes off as transparently political. Cuomo likely feels compelled to signal his left-wing bona fides now that the uber-liberal former Sex and the City co-star, Cynthia Nixon, has thrown her hat into the gubernatorial ring. Cuomo’s gesture seems to suggest that, at least as regards criminal-justice reform, the 2018 Democratic primary could turn into a race to the bottom.
Cuomo’s order is more symbolism than substance. All it really does is make paroled felons eligible “for a conditional pardon that will restore voting rights.” It doesn’t guarantee that they will get such a pardon, and it neither restores “rights with respect to the receipt, transportation, or possession of firearms” nor relieves individuals of “any unpaid restitution, fine, or other financial obligation resulting from a conviction.” It won’t “restore the right to hold public office,” and it won’t seal conviction records. And the order makes clear that it “and all future restorations of voting rights, shall not be construed as a remission of guilt or forgiveness of the offense and shall not function as a bar to greater penalties for future offenses.”
More worrisome is the governor’s willingness to use criminal-justice issues to signal his ideological alignment with the left wing of the Democratic Party. The far Left has taken positions on criminal justice at odds with honest assessments of available data and that would likely undermine recent gains in public safety. Scholars at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice have proposed, for example, releasing 40 percent of the prison population, including many violent offenders. New Yorkers should hope that Cuomo doesn’t start warming to ideas along those lines.
So far, many of Cuomo’s proposed criminal-justice reforms are relatively mild, at least by the Left’s standards. Others resemble similar efforts spearheaded by conservative groups. The governor has proposed reforming civil-asset seizure law to require an arrest as a prerequisite to seizure. That’s an improvement, no doubt, on current law, but it doesn’t go as far as many on both the right and the left would like. Along with right-leaning groups such as the R-Street Institute, Cuomo has also proposed occupational-licensing reform, to minimize the barriers that ex-convicts face in the job market.
Meantime, Cynthia Nixon has prioritized marijuana legalization. Current pot laws, she maintains, are driving racial disparities among the incarcerated—an argument that ignores reality. Very few people are in prison or jail for mere pot possession, and drug offenses are simply not driving racial disparities in prison. As John Pfaff explains in his informative book, Locked In, “If we released everyone in prison in 2013 whose top charge was a drug offense . . . the black percentage [in prison] would fall by one point (from 38 to 37 percent).”
Whether Nixon can mount a successful challenge to Cuomo remains to be seen. Early signs suggest, at least, that she could influence the race by pushing the governor left on criminal-justice issues. That’s an unfortunate area for her to have an impact in, since New Yorkers are always at risk of taking the historic crime reductions of the last 25 years for granted—and forgetting how they were achieved.
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