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Lawmakers agree to limited reforms, but there's still...
A fight ahead over N.Y. drug laws

By Alan Maass | December 17, 2004 | Page 2

AFTER YEARS of dragging their feet, New York lawmakers agreed this month on legislation that will change the state's draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Victims of the drug laws and their families have devoted countless hours to winning reform of a system that has sent tens of thousands of people to prison for nonviolent offenses so minor that they often result in probation in other states.

Still, the law that Gov. George Pataki and legislators finally agreed on falls short of what activists have demanded--and leaves many of the Rockefeller laws' harshest aspects intact.

Under the legislation, the mandatory sentence for the most serious--or Class A--offenses would be reduced from 15 years to life to eight to 20 years in prison. Sentences would be reduced somewhat for other classes of offenses. The law also doubles the amount of drugs that suspects have to be caught with to get the most serious charges.

Another provision allows more than 400 prisoners currently serving long sentences to petition judges to be released from jail early. But these 400 are a tiny fraction of the estimated 17,000 prisoners currently in prison under the state's drug laws.

The new legislation also rejects one of the most central demands of activists--that judges be given discretion in applying sentences. The Rockefeller laws require mandatory sentences, no matter what the circumstances of a particular case--whether, for example, a defendant is a first-time offender, or the conviction was obviously the result of a police setup. This system allows power-hungry prosecutors--who want to keep a steady stream of defendants going to prison--to control the outcome of drug cases.

The new bill also contains no provisions for increasing funding for drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration. "After all this time, this is what comes to the floor?" asked state Sen. Thomas Duane, during the legislature's debate on the bill. "It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug reform."

The Rockefeller laws were put in place in the 1970s by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who concocted the proposal to prove his conservative credentials--helping to further the politicians' law-and-order hysteria nationally. The injustices of the laws have been obvious from the beginning.

They are based on the amount of drugs in a person's possession, rather than their role in any drug sale. In other words, drug couriers, rather than those organizing the sales, pay the harshest price. And more than a third of drug offenders currently behind bars were convicted not for selling drugs, but for possession. The drug laws are also blatantly racist. Just over half of drug offenders imprisoned in New York today are African American, and 42 percent are Latino.

Protests of the Rockefeller laws have been on the rise, especially over the past decade. Former prisoners themselves have often taken the lead, for example, forming Mothers of the New York Disappeared to unite the families of those thrown in prison.

This activism is what forced the politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--to take up the issue of reforming the Rockefeller laws.

Elaine Bartlett, a victim of the drug laws whose story was told in the recent book Life on the Outside, said the new law was a small step in the right direction. "[T]his is the beginning of breaking a cycle that will spare my community and other families my pain," she told New York Newsday.

Russell Simmons, the music producer who has campaigned against the Rockefeller laws, was even more positive. "Do I believe that there is more room?" Simmons said in an interview with the New York Times. "Yes is the answer. I think the people who fought--the kids who came out, the artists who worked hard--I think they will embrace it. It shows their power--that they have a political might that can be used to benefit the state and the country."

But other voices were critical. Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, fears that the legislation could undercut momentum for more far-reaching changes. "[T]he most serious provision of the drug laws [now] carries a sentence of eight to 20 years--still far too long," Gangi wrote in an op-ed article in Newsday. "Many other drug offenders, most of whom have no history of violent or predatory behavior, will still be incarcerated for inordinate periods of time, and New York's taxpayers will still foot the bill."

Anthony Papa, the author of a new book about how he was ensnared by the Rockefeller laws, spending 12 years behind bars, said activists have more work ahead of them after this new law. "It was a sellout to quiet the rage that activists have felt for many years about this issue," Papa told Socialist Worker. "I urge those who have been in the trenches fighting for true reform to keep up the pressure, and fight to change the power structure of the Rockefeller Drug Laws."

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