By Rob Abruzzese
Disgraced former Assemblymember Pamela Harris initially faced up to 30 years in prison, but a Brooklyn federal court judge decided to give her just six months in prison instead.
After she serves six months in federal prison, Harris, a 58-year-old who represented the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Coney Island, Bath Beach, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights and Seagate in the state Assembly, will also be subject to three years of supervised release, will serve 400 hours of community service and will payback all of what she stole.
She pleaded guilty in June to stealing $45,600 from the non-profit group she ran, the Coney Island Generation Gap, and $24,800 from FEMA following Hurricane Sandy, and also for inducing witnesses to lie to the FBI.
U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein, of the Eastern District of New York, could have given her up to 30 years for the top charge of stealing from FEMA, however, he explained that he gave her a slap on the wrist instead because of her tragic life story and the fact that she can serve as a mentor for at-risk youth after her sentence.
“This tragic case presents complex and difficult sentencing issues,” judge Weinstein wrote in a 23-page opinion that he released on Wednesday.
The judge explained that Harris, who grew up in Coney Island, was beaten by her mother with a belt as a teenager and never knew her father. He said that the unexpected death of her only child drove her to live on the streets while worked as a prostitute with a crack cocaine addiction.
Harris later worked as a corrections officer on Rikers Island where he suffered a brutal beating at the hands of an inmate, the judge said. At the age of 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy that required three invasive surgeries. Later a car accident required more surgery and she also apparently suffers from diabetes and other medical issues.
“Harris has exhibited a remarkable capacity to rehabilitate herself: she earned a G.E.D. in 1995, an associate’s degree in 2004, a bachelor’s degree in 2007, and a master’s degree in 2013,” judge Weinstein wrote. “She became a leader in the Coney Island community, particularly in instructing children and steering them away from criminal conduct; and universal respect resulted in her election as an assemblywoman. She married a supportive husband and maintained good relations with all her family. She is sincerely remorseful for her crimes.
“The likelihood of criminal behavior in the future is low,” Weinstein continued. “The probability of her assisting people in the community, and ex-convicts, is high.”
Harris' criminal behavior stretched from 2012 to 2017 and while she served as an Assemblymember while she continued her scam, she did not use her authority as a lawmaker to commit her fraud.
The judge also noted that because of her history as a prison guard that she would most likely become a target while she serves her sentence and said that as a result she, "has a better chance at rehabilitation on the outside than on the inside of a prison."
“In view of the defendant’s unique, tragic personal history, her extraordinary capacity for rehabilitation, and the important role she can serve in her community, as well as the fact that her
crimes were not committed with the power of her public office, a term of imprisonment longer than six months is not required,” Weinstein wrote.
“She voluntarily resigned from public office,” Weinstein continued. “Harris has expressed remorse for her conduct and understands the gravity of her actions. Time in prison, close supervision after release, and restitution provide sufficient deterrence. In addition to the punishments imposed by this court, she has lost some of the respect of her community which she desperately sought. Given her age, lack of prior criminal history, and the support she receives from her family and friends, she presents a low risk for recidivism.”