Justice Democrat Calls for Mass Prison Release

Blanket clemency would release more than 7,500 inmates including violent offenders

Jamaal Bowman / YouTube Screenshot
April 23, 2020

A New York Democrat demanded the immediate release of all New York state prisoners scheduled to be released later in 2020, a move that could set free more than 7,500 inmates overnight.

Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx progressive challenging Democratic incumbent Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), voiced support Tuesday for a proposal by actress Piper Perabo. Perabo had called on New York governor Andrew Cuomo to grant immediate release to all inmates who are scheduled to leave prison in 2020. She argued in a tweet that the new coronavirus pandemic is "spreading like wildfire in facilities."

Poor health care and cramped quarters have facilitated the spread of the deadly disease in some prisons and jails. Bowman and other Democratic activists have capitalized on the pandemic by demanding the early release of prisoners on humanitarian grounds. Several prisons have complied with such demands, releasing nonviolent prisoners before they complete their sentences. Early release plans in places such as New York and California have so far applied to only nonviolent prisoners, but no such restrictions are mentioned in the plan backed by Perabo and Bowman. The clemency proposal appears to offer a blanket release that would not make a distinction between violent and nonviolent criminal convictions.

The Bowman campaign did not respond to request for comment.

The scope of the proposal also far outpaces existing clemency plans. California, for example, has so far committed to releasing only about 3,500 prisoners. The mass clemency backed by Bowman would immediately release more than 7,500 convicted criminals in New York alone.

Prisons located in or near coronavirus hotspots have been severely affected by the disease. For instance, nearly 1 in 10 inmates in Rikers Island has tested positive for coronavirus, according to an estimate gathered by the Legal Aid Society. In response, New York City has released more than 1,500 inmates from jail to create more space for social distancing. However, the early release of prisoners might have an adverse effect on public order at a time when police forces are being hollowed out by the coronavirus. The New York Post found that dozens of New York criminals were back in prison within weeks of their early release.

Bowman is backed by Justice Democrats, a group that engineered Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D., N.Y.) surprise victory over Joe Crowley, a New York Democratic heavyweight. Bowman has so far secured endorsements from New York progressives including Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, both of whom mounted failed challenges for the governorship against Cuomo. Bowman also supports other progressive policy objectives, including the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Bowman has frequently railed against the prison system during his campaign, comparing prison work to slavery and solitary confinement to torture.

"A nation cannot claim to be rich and powerful if we are committing torture at our borders and within our prison system," he said in June 2019, referring to solitary confinement. "A country that leads the developed world in incarceration, poverty and infant mortality is morally bankrupt."