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I desire mercy, not sacrifice

The following Op-Ed was featured in the Buffalo News on Sept 17, 2021

These words, shared first by the Hebrew prophet Hosea, and later repeated by Jesus, carry weight for those of us in the United States in 2021. In recent years, many have woken up to the harsh realities of the mass incarceration system in this country. Many others, particularly leaders of color, have sounded the alarm about this system for much longer. The idea that jails and prisons promote public safety or rehabilitate prisoners has been systematically dismantled piece by piece.

David Gilbert has been in prison for nearly 40 years. In 1981, David took part in a robbery that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a security guard. David was a driver, unarmed, and not involved in the shooting. David was convicted of felony murder, a law peculiar to the United State that holds anyone involved in a felony responsible for deaths that occur.

Many countries have abolished felony murder laws, finding them particularly cruel and vicious. On his last day in office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo commuted David’s sentence to 40 years to life, thus making him eligible for parole. He is 76 years old, and one of the oldest and longest-serving people in New York State prisons. David has expressed deep remorse for his crime and has demonstrated this through his remarkable accomplishments despite his incarceration. While in prison, he has worked for peace and to end racism inside and outside prison walls. He has mentored others away from violence, he has saved lives through HIV/AIDS education programs in prison that have become a model nationally, and despite incarceration, he has managed to be a loving parent to his son, the District Attorney of San Francisco, Chesa Boudin. Though I have never met David, I, along with many other organizers and activists, have learned from him. He has a deep analysis of injustices in our society, and many new and emerging activists would greatly benefit from David’s insights, experiences, and perhaps most importantly, his clear-eyed and sober critiques of his own actions and those of the broader movement. I, along with other faith leaders and many people of conscience, grieve with the families who have suffered such loss, and pray for healing. We can both hold this grief and insist that releasing David is the right thing to do. Continued punishment is not justice. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Forty years is enough. Let us not sacrifice David to outdated and vindictive notions of justice. The parole board should set David free.

Rev. Joe Paparone is the lead organizer with the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State.

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