Eastern Correctional (photo: wikimedia commons)
The conversation around criminal justice reform is finally moving from general talk about mass incarceration to the specific reality of the multitude of people serving massive sentences. The more accurate description of these sentences – death by incarceration – is replacing antiseptic phrases like “life without parole.” These long-term sentences are, in truth, sentences to death in prison.
Several years ago, the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School began working with people serving death in prison sentences on their only path to freedom: gubernatorial clemency. While we have worked with only a small fraction of the nearly 9,000 people serving life sentences in New York, it is enough to reveal the criminal legal system’s obsession with processing, convicting, and punishing.
Virtually everyone we have worked with was convicted after a trial, the case for most people serving life sentences in New York. This raises two questions: why weren’t those cases resolved through plea negotiations like virtually all other criminal cases, and what was the justification for meting out massive sentences on people who exercised their constitutional right to trial?
In several cases, we heard from clients that the defense lawyer never mentioned any plea offer. In many others, we heard about plea offers being superficially conveyed but virtually no time spent having the difficult yet crucial discussion of the pros and cons of a plea versus a trial. We repeatedly heard about a complete lack of advice from the attorney about the wisdom of accepting or rejecting a plea offer.
It became clear from conversations with lifers that many of their assigned lawyers had been eager to take cases to trial and forgo the serious consideration of a plea, especially since most were being paid an hourly rate by the court and had a financial incentive to take a case to trial regardless of the risks to their clients.
Almost all the people we worked with were represented by a lawyer assigned by the court. They had no say in who their lawyer was and had no realistic way of replacing that lawyer (and many tried). Over and over we heard the same thing: ‘my lawyer did not come to the jail to meet with me a single time while my charges were pending.’
We also learned that the failures of many of these attorneys did not end with the lack of client counseling. Considering the enormous sentences handed down after trial, perhaps the lawyers’ greatest deficiency was at the sentencing proceeding itself. In most cases, there was no pre-sentence memorandum supporting an argument for a lesser sentence and no mitigation advocacy of any kind.
In several cases, sentencing advocacy consisted of a few generic sentences from counsel asking the court to be lenient. In one case, there were serious pretrial issues regarding the accused’s mental capacity, but at sentencing the defense counsel said nothing about his client’s documented history of mental illness.
It would be a grievous mistake to blame defense counsel for all the ills that define the criminal legal system. After trial, prosecutors routinely asked judges to impose the maximum sentence and judges were glad to oblige, often tacking on consecutive sentences to ensure that the person would die in prison -- and to send a loud message to anyone else who had the temerity to insist on the right to a trial.
One man was offered a plea of three to nine years, went to trial, and is currently serving 25 to life. Another was offered 25 to life pre-trial yet sentenced after trial to 125 to life. Some argue that plea offers are a discount and a necessary ingredient of the adjudication of criminal cases in an imperfect system. However, such disparate outcomes – 25 to life if you plead, 125 to life after trial – cannot be justified.
As we spent more time with those serving life sentences, we saw the impact of a merciless and punitive system in countless ways.
Many lifers are from rapidly gentrifying parts of New York City. Most were sentenced in the 1980s. They are black and Latinx. A majority are from places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and the Lower East Side. Their families were long ago priced out of the neighborhood as long-neglected zip codes have changed so drastically that the lifers would barely recognize where they grew up.
In New York, there are 613 lifers who were 17 and under at the time of their charges. There are thousands more convicted when they were 18, 19 or in their early twenties. Many are now in their forties and fifties having served decades in prison for crimes committed in their youth when labels like “super-predator” fed into racist narratives and massive sentences.
Yet neuroscience now informs us that brain development continues into our mid-twenties. Even the Supreme Court now recognizes that youth have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are less culpable than adults, and have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. A growing number of states have passed laws that give young offenders an opportunity to seek parole or a sentence reduction after having served a proscribed number of years in prison. There is no similar movement afoot in New York to correct those morally indefensible, and arguably illegal, sentences.
There is a rapidly growing aging population in New York prisons. These people have long since aged out of any real possibility of future criminal behavior. Many are dying. New York has a mechanism in place for compassionate release for those with terminal illness but from 2013-2017 only 72 people were granted medical release.
Many law students came to this work inspired by Innocence Projects across the country. We have worked with several people with undeniable innocence claims that have fallen on deaf prosecutorial and judicial ears. But while the students wanted to join the battle for justice for the wrongly convicted, they soon discovered a much larger area of unjust convictions – the many lifers who, even if not factually innocent, were denied any semblance of due process.
One man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, had a pending lawsuit against New York City based on an incident where a client less than a year earlier slashed him with a razor during a visit in the holding cells. As part of that lawsuit, the lawyer testified that he was seeing a psychiatrist and had trouble relating to clients.
Another man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, was under investigation by the very same District Attorney’s office prosecuting him. The lawyer was indicted soon after the verdict (and ended up in state prison), and a new lawyer appeared at sentencing.
In another case, the defense claimed that a prosecution witness had been coerced into testifying falsely by the prosecutor. That prosecutor thereafter became a defense attorney and is now in federal prison for suborning perjury.
Another man is serving a life sentence based on a case where the lead detective turned out to be a serial murderer for the mob. The police file in the case is nowhere to be found.
In each of these cases, all appeals were fought by the prosecution and denied by the court.
Since we were working with people serving life sentences, many students assumed that these were people convicted of murder; people who had taken a human life. However, many of the lifers we’ve worked with were convicted of felony murder, a rule that allows a person to be charged with murder even if the death is at the hands of someone else. Several people did not kill anyone, fire any shots, possess a weapon, or have any intention, or even expectation, that anyone would be killed. Still, because they participated in an underlying robbery, they were convicted of felony murder and given a life sentence. Several of these men were teenagers at the time they were arrested. There is a growing movement for states to reconsider the felony murder rule, but New York is missing in action.
We have worked with only a small number of the people serving life sentences in New York, and an even smaller percentage of the 47,000 people in state prison. Nevertheless, we have found ample reason to fear that the impact of long overdue criminal justice reforms, trumpeted daily and endorsed by countless politicians, may be far less than hoped until the extant incarceratory system within which those changes operate is dismantled or radically overhauled.
Meanwhile, it is time to demand clemency for the countless number of people who merit that relief, and to create second-look mechanisms that require immediate review of the massive sentences that fed mass incarceration.
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law and a former Public Defender. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.