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Consequences of New York's Rockefeller drug laws
Rotting away in prison

July 23, 2004 | Page 6

THE NEW York state legislature failed again this June to make changes in the state's Rockefeller drug laws, even though nearly all lawmakers agree that they are draconian. The laws--passed in the 1970s at the insistence of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller--impose mandatory minimum sentences for all kinds of drug offenses. The mandatory sentence for possession of as little as four ounces--or selling as little as two ounces--is 15 years to life. Smaller amounts still carry mandatory sentences of five years or more, and judges aren't allowed to intervene to lower them.

The Rockefeller laws have filled the New York prison system to overflowing. Some 38 percent of prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, and an incredible 93 percent are Latinos or African Americans. Many state politicians--Democrats and Republicans alike, including Gov. George Pataki--agree the drug laws are too harsh.

But the desperately needed reforms have been blocked due to lobbying by prosecutors--who have enormous power thanks to the Rockefeller laws--and political pressure from predominantly white communities in upstate New York that have benefited from the prison-building boom that went along with the race to incarcerate minority drug offenders.

ANTHONY PAPA is a victim of the Rockefeller drug laws. He served 12 years of a mandatory 15-years-to-life sentence for drug possession before winning clemency in 1997. After his release, he helped to found New York Mothers of the Disappeared, which has organized against the racist war on drugs. He is the author of 15 to Life, to be published by Feral House later this year. Anthony wrote this article after the latest negotiations over reforming the Rockefeller laws broke down with no progress.

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ONCE AGAIN, the legislature of New York state has failed to come to an agreement to change the Rockefeller drug laws. The Associated Press reported that the Senate's chief representative on a conference committee, state Sen. Dale Volker, accused Assembly Democrats of wanting to engineer a "jail break" by easing punishments too much for some offenders. This is the same individual that has a handful of prisons in his district, which are full of nonviolent drug offenders from the inner city.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 27 other states have made changes in similar laws in the last year, resulting in saved tax dollars and saved human lives. The best reported piece that showed the dysfunctional ways of the legislature was a recent New York Times article pointing out that finally, for the first time, the legislature was going to open its doors to the public to view legislative hearings, which traditionally have been held in secret. Well, they should have kept the doors closed, because now we had a chance to see politics at its worst.

The Republicans and Democrats argued for hours and could not come to an agreement on how to agree. Assemblyman Jeff Aubrey, who is the co-chair of a conference committee to change the Rockefeller Drug laws, described it "as a way of setting up what is on the table in real terms, so that we can know that we are getting something done." But a few days later, the state Senate's Republican majority said it saw no purpose in continuing the conference committee.

To people outside the loop, this is seen as the standard trend in New York's dysfunctional political process. One group of protesters in wheel chairs was so angry at the quagmire preventing things from getting done that they recently barricaded lawmakers in a hearing room in Albany, N.Y., forcing the Capitol police to rescue the legislators.

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ROCKEFELLER DRUG law reform is an issue that has been tossed around between the legislature and the courts for the last 31 years without any positive result. In the early years, the legislature kept the gloves on between the two parties, blaming the court system instead. Lawmakers said that the judicial process should change the Rockefeller drug laws. Let the courts declare these laws unconstitutional, they cried--a convenient way to evade responsibility.

The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state, in turn, refused to address the issue and sternly declared that it was a matter the legislature should decide. God forbid the laws be declared unconstitutional. The judicial system would be bankrupted by the thousands of lawsuits filed by criminal defendants.

After this judicial blow to the midsection, the legislature began dueling between the two parties. Each blamed the other for not changing the laws, while the governor danced around the issue. Do you blame the legislature or the governor for shedding responsibility? Who wants to get caught advocating for change on an issue that could ruin an individual's career, because they would look "soft on crime"? And let's not forget the district attorney's offices, which have been the most outspoken group against any type of change. The same individuals live and die by their rates of convictions.

However, let's look at the reality of the consequences. Thousands of individuals are rotting in prison under these laws--which also affects thousands of families outside of the prison walls. Hey politicians, doesn't this matter?

The Wall Street Journal, in an op-ed article, just reported that the former drug czar of the U.S., Gen. Barry McCaffrey, co-authored an article calling for an end to New York's Rockefeller drug laws. Ten years ago, I appeared along with him on a television show that found draconian drug laws were a violation of human rights. I was serving a 15-years-to-life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug crime under these laws.

I remember as clear as a bell the stern look on the general's face when he declared, "You can't lock your way out of the problem". In New York, it seems that this is untrue--especially if you keep filling your prisons with drug offenders. Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built in rural upstate communities, primarily in Republican districts.

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SO WHAT do we do to solve the problem of New York's dysfunctional political process caused by its politicians? I think I have the answer.

In 1998, Families Against Mandatory Sentencing (FAMM) held a convention called "Metamorphosis" in Washington D.C. Its theme was change and transformation, and several speakers were former politicians who had fallen from grace. Among them was Webster Hubbell, who was a part of the Clintons' Whitewater scandal. Hubble, an associate attorney general of the U.S., wound up doing time for a white-collar crime. Not serious time, but nevertheless, enough to get a taste of imprisonment.

He spoke of how his thought process about the system dramatically changed while sitting in a jail cell during a prison lockdown. The federal government had just passed crack cocaine legislation, which led to several federal prison riots. As Hubbell sat in his cell like a caged animal, his mind opened up, bringing up his past. It made him remember a day when he signed a similar lockdown order that would affect thousands of prisoners. This was his road-to-Damascus experience that led him to be an agent of change to seek a better system.

As he spoke, I turned to another ex-prisoner and said, "This is it, this is how we change the system. We pass a law that makes it mandatory to spend some time in a jail cell before taking a political position or governmental office." Maybe then, the system would benefit the people, instead of those in power.

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