Gov. Cuomo Pardons Drug Reformer Anthony Papa, Issues Dozens of Clemencies

By Keri Blakinger 01/03/17

Since his release in the late '90s, Papa has published two books and works at the Drug Policy Alliance. 

Anthony Papa, Andrew Cuomo and Mario Cuomo
Mario Cuomo, Anthony Papa and Andrew Cuomo back in 2004. Photo used with the permission of Anthony Papa

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday granted 101 conditional pardons and 12 other clemencies—including a pardon to drug-reform activist Anthony Papa. 

Convicted of a first-time drug offense in 1985, Papa served 12 years under draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws before he was released and went on to work at the Drug Policy Alliance. Now with the newly announced pardon, the 62-year-old former prisoner will be able to enjoy the restoration of some of the many rights forfeited after a felony conviction.

“Being granted the pardon was a vindication for me in that it showed that my punishment did not fit the crime,” Papa told The Fix the day after news of the pardons broke.

End-of-year clemencies are a gubernatorial tradition in New York, but Papa’s pardon is unusual because the artist and writer was also previously granted a sentence commutation by former Gov. George Pataki in 1997. 

Papa was initially convicted of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the First Degree after police used a confidential informant to set up a sting. Under some of the nation’s harshest drug laws, the New York City native was sentenced to 15-to-life. He got out after 12 years, when Pataki commuted his sentence. 

Since then, he’s published two books and spent more than 10 years working at the Drug Policy Alliance

“Tony Papa broke the law but the real crime was committed by the State of New York when it locked him up for 15–to-life for a first time, non-violent drug transaction,” DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said Friday in a statement.

Papa thanked the governor, hailing him as a “champion of the people” in the release. 

“The road to freedom was not an easy one, and maintaining that freedom is not easy because of the many roadblocks for formerly incarcerated individuals,” Papa said. “I have tried to set an example to show that people can become productive citizens upon release if given the opportunity.”

Another high-profile beneficiary of Cuomo’s annual goodwill is Judith Clark. Unlike Papa, who received a post-prison pardon, Clark was given a sentence commutation that will make her eligible for release decades sooner than expected. 

Clark, 67, has served more than 35 years behind bars for her role as the getaway driver in an infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery that resulted in the deaths of three people, including two police officers.

She’s been locked up for longer than her six co-defendants, most of whom are either dead or out of prison. One, Kathy Boudin, had a similar role in the crime and is now a professor at Columbia University.

During her time in prison, Clark earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, taught pre-natal parenting courses, founded an HIV/AIDS education program, trained service dogs, and served as a college tutor. Under her original sentence of 75-to-life, she wouldn’t have become eligible for parole till she was 106 years old. Now, she’ll be able to appear before the parole board in early 2017. 

While Clark’s and Papa’s clemencies were part of a longstanding tradition, the Cuomo administration has frequently been stingy with the annual gubernatorial act of mercy, especially when it comes to commutations. But Friday’s actions could hint at a new approach to legal forgiveness.  

The 101 conditional pardons also mark a new chapter in New York state’s approach to criminal justice and re-entry. 

The first of their kind in the nation, the conditional pardons were granted to non-violent offenders who were convicted as minors and have been crime-free for at least a decade. Cuomo initially announced plans for large-scale conditional pardons back in 2015, but didn’t make good on them till the final days of 2016. 

"New York is a state of opportunity and today, we are granting these individuals and others a second chance to live up to their full potential, provide for their families and give back to their communities,” Cuomo said in a statement Friday. 

“With these actions, we have taken one more step toward a more just, more fair and more compassionate New York for all."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.