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New York State Reforms Harsh Rockefeller Laws
Civil Rights Groups, Community Organizers, Political Leaders Join To 'Drop The Rock'
As the New York Times reported on March 25, 2009 ("New York Lawmakers Agree to Repeal '70s-Era Drug Laws"), "Gov. David A. Paterson and New York legislative leaders have reached an agreement to dismantle much of what remains of the state's strict 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the nation." The Times further explains that "The deal would repeal many of the mandatory minimum prison sentences now in place for lower-level drug felons, giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison. The plan would also expand drug treatment programs and widen the reach of drug courts at a cost of at least $50 million."
Those legislators made good on their March promise when, as advocacy group Drop the Rock stated on its website, "the NY State Senate voted to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws" in early April of 2009. Aside from the reforms mentioned by the Times, Drop the Rock also reports that "In some limited cases, people who are currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws will be able to apply for resentencing and release." However, as they remind readers, "this is not the end of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, [but] if we have anything to do with it, it will be the beginning of the end."
For more information, check out the Drug War Chronicle's feature on this development ("New York Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Bill") and Drop the Rock's website.
Research shows that in the last decade the city of New York has experienced a massive increase in the number of minor marijuana possession arrests. New York Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy wrote on July 16, 2007 ("Arrests For Pot Are Excessive") that "'I call it an epidemic of marijuana arrests. New York City has been on a binge of marijuana arrests for the last 10 years.' 'I would call it a dragnet.' These are the conclusions of Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at Queens College, and Deborah Small, director of Break the Chains, a nonprofit drug policy reform group and a longtime advocate of changing the city's drug policies. The two, who are studying the city's marijuana arrest policy, want to see the police give summonses to people who are caught smoking marijuana in public or with small amounts of marijuana on them, instead of the current practice of arresting them and jailing them overnight. According to arrest data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the number of arrests for marijuana possession skyrocketed from about 10,000 in 1996 to more than 50,000 in 2000. The arrests have tapered off somewhat since then, but remain high: 33,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year. Meanwhile, federal government figures show that between 1997 and 2006 marijuana use among high school students and 19- to 28-year-olds rose only slightly."
According to McCarthy, "Studies of marijuana arrests in New York City by Levine, researchers at the University of Chicago Law School, and the National Development and Research Institutes found that the overwhelming number of those arrested for marijuana possession were black and Latino males, even though national studies show that black and Latino high school students use marijuana at a lower rate than white students. However, the state criminal justice services officials say they have concerns about the reliability of the city's statistics on the race of those arrested because of how racial data are reported. Marijuana arrests in the city surged in the late 1990s as part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's quality-of-life policing strategy, and have continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But although early law enforcement efforts concentrated on heavily trafficked public areas like Central Park and midtown Manhattan, the efforts shifted to lower-income black and Latino communities, the studies say."
The columnist noted that "Legal Aid attorneys I talked to confirmed that they're handling far more marijuana possession cases than in years past. One experienced Legal Aid attorney told me the police used to issue desk appearance tickets, but now they're putting them through the arrest wringer. 'It's disturbing,' says Seymour James, the attorney in charge of crime practice for the Legal Aid Society, 'incarcerating them overnight when they could be given a summons. There is no reason for this ... for merely having a marijuana cigarette.' The police have considerable discretion in how they treat marijuana offenses. They can confiscate the pot, give the person a warning and tell them to go home. They can write a summons, which is similar to a traffic ticket and requires the offender to appear before a judge on a certain date. A summons can result in a fine or a dismissal. Or they can choose to arrest and handcuff the offenders, put them in a police car, take them to the station house, fingerprint and photograph them, and hold them in jail until they can be arraigned, which can sometimes take days. Many possession charges are dismissed if the person doesn't get into any more trouble in the next year. But it's ridiculously punitive to put people through a humiliating process for a minor offense. 'We're socializing black and Latino youths to the criminal justice system,' Levine says. 'We're teaching them how to be in the system.' It's like telling them this is a rehearsal for a future of getting arrested and spending time in jail, Small says."
In Dec. 2005, the Legal Aid Society of New York released a devastating analysis of recent reforms to New York's infamous Rockefeller drug laws. The New York Times reported on Dec. 15, 2005 ( "Few State Prisoners Freed Under Eased Drug Law") that "When Gov. George E. Pataki signed a law a year ago reducing what he called "unduly long sentences" for drug crimes, he predicted that hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders would be released from prison. But so far, only 142 prisoners - about 30 percent of those originally eligible for new sentences under the revised law - have been freed, according to a report released yesterday by the Legal Aid Society."
According to the Times, "The new sentencing provisions were the most widely heralded aspect of the Drug Law Reform Act of 2004, which changed the mandatory sentencing laws imposed in 1973 when Nelson Rockefeller was governor. Those laws had been criticized for requiring judges to impose a sentence of 15 years to life on anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of narcotics, whether they were drug lords or low-level couriers. The new law increased the amount of drugs that trigger long sentences, and reduced those sentences to 8 to 20 years. And it allowed prisoners serving the longest prison terms to ask to be resentenced under the new standards."
The Times noted that "A major reason that relatively few prisoners have been released is that district attorneys are still opposing resentencing requests and, in some cases, asking judges to impose long prison terms, said William Gibney, a senior attorney for Legal Aid who wrote the report."
A copy of the report, "One Year Later: New York's Experience With Drug Law Reform," can be downloaded from the CSDP website.
New York took one more small step toward reform of its draconian Rockefeller drug laws in August 2005. The New York Times reported on Aug. 31, 2005 ( "Pataki Signs Bill Softening Drug Laws") that "Gov. George E. Pataki signed a bill into law last night that will soften the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, his office said. The new law will allow about 540 inmates - those convicted of Class A-2 felonies - the chance to petition for resentencing and early release."
According to the Times, "The bill, one in a batch of about 100 that the governor signed about 7:30 p.m., would have gone into effect at midnight without Mr. Pataki's signature unless he had vetoed it. The governor, who is weighing a run for president, signed the bill 'based on its merits,' a spokesman, Kevin Quinn, said."
The Times noted "While reformers hailed the new law last night, they said they would like to see more done to dismantle the drug laws. 'We took 2 steps forward on Rockefeller reform last December, and we're taking another step forward today, but we have another good 10 steps to go,' said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on changing national drug policy."
For a unique perspective on the Rockefeller laws and the reforms being enacted by the state, check out this op-ed by former NY state prisoner Anthony Papa, "This Isn't Justice At All," from the Sept. 2, 2005 edition of the Socialist Worker. Also, this article, "Limited Rockefeller Reform Bill Signed," posted at ThugLifeArmy.com on Aug. 31, 2005.
At last, New York has begun to change its draconian drug laws, taking at least a beginning babystep toward reform. The New York Times reported ( "New York State Votes To Reduce Drug Sentences") "After years of false starts, state lawmakers voted Tuesday evening to reduce the steep mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes in New York State, sanctions considered among the most severe in the nation. The push to soften the so-called Rockefeller drug laws came after a nearly decade-long campaign to ease the drug penalties instituted in the 1970s that put some low-level first-time drug offenders behind bars for sentences ranging from 15 years to life. Under the changes passed Tuesday, which Gov. George E. Pataki said he would sign, the sentence for those same offenders would be reduced to 8 to 20 years in prison. The law will allow more than 400 inmates serving lengthy prison terms on those top counts to apply to judges to get out of jail early."
According to the Times, "While some elected officials and drug policy advocates hailed the drug sentencing changes as a major step forward, others complained that they did not go far enough. They complained that inmates serving what they called unduly long prison terms for lesser crimes would not be allowed to apply for early release, and that judges were not given the power to sentence some offenders to treatment programs rather than prison. 'This is it?' an exasperated State Senator Thomas Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, shouted during the debate. 'This is it? After all this time, this is what comes to the floor? It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug reform.' But Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul who had vigorously pushed for the changes, said he was 'very, very happy,' and credited pressure from the hip-hop community for raising awareness on the issue. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver credited a changed political landscape - including the election of a new district attorney in Albany County, David Soares, who ran with the backing of the Working Families Party on a platform seeking drug-law changes - for bringing the state's leaders to a compromise. He said he would continue to push for more changes next year. 'It isn't everything we wanted, and I think we will continue to press for some of those things, but I think the climate has changed here,' he said."
New York Newsday published on Dec. 7, 2004, a summary of the changes made
to New York's drug law by passage of Senate Bill 7802/Assembly
Bill 11895 (
"Highlights Of Drug Law Sentencing Agreement").
According to Newsday:
The New York legislature ended its session in June 2004 without accomplishing any of the reforms it set out to do at the beginning. The Troy Record reported on June 22, 2004 ( "Senate, Assembly On Form To The End") that " Today, the session officially ends without a budget in place for the 20th straight year, and issues long outstanding remain unresolved. Legislators will head home and negotiations will continue behind closed doors. Bruno said it is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars to keep his chamber in Albany while so little substantive work is taking place. He is prepared, he said, to call lawmakers back if something of significance is agreed upon. 'We agreed in December to close down on June 22,' Bruno said. 'We will continue to talk and continue to negotiate. ... What we are not going to do is sit around here.' The three leaders do hold out hope of agreeing on a "handful," of items - down from more than two dozen last week - but relations were still tense Monday, particularly between the governor and the speaker."
According to the Record, "Outside of a two-house bill requiring hunters to wear fluorescent orange gear while hunting, it was much of the same on Monday, the second to last day of the legislative session. Gov. George Pataki, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver emerged from a nearly three-hour meeting without agreeing on anything. The governor proposed a six-week budget extender to keep the state in business until Aug. 2. It is much longer than the one- and two-week extenders that have been passed since April 1, the start of the state's fiscal year. After some debate on the floor, the Senate approved the bill. But after threatening not to pass it and to essentially shut down the government Monday afternoon, Silver and the Assembly Democrats passed a resolution asking for only a one-week extender."
The Record noted that specifically "A host of other non-budget-related items are being held hostage by the lack of a budget, such as reform of the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws, new regulations to site power plants, insurance parity for mental health patients, known as Timothy's Law, and how to implement the Help America Vote Act."
The New York state legislature and NY Governor George Pataki began their annual dance around reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in early June 2004. The Associated Press reported on June 4, 2004 ( "NY May Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws") that "This week, members of a legislative conference committee verbally agreed to reduce the 15 years-to-life mandatory sentences for the most serious offenses to as little as 3 to 10 years. Gov. George Pataki and most legislators have called it an injustice that a first-time offender could face a life sentence for possessing as little as 4 ounces of a controlled substance or for selling only 2 ounces. 'We have never gotten this close to an agreement,' said state Sen. Dale Volker, the committee's Republican co-chairman. 'Now we are right down to the nitty gritty.'"
According to AP, "The sticking points between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled Assembly both address the issue of treatment for nonviolent offenders. The Assembly wants those offenders to get treatment, in many cases with no prison time, and wants to remove the veto power that district attorneys now have over courts' decisions to send offenders to treatment. The Senate opposes both steps. Letting offenders avoid prison entirely under drug law reform would represent a 'dramatic change in our entire sentencing scheme,' Volker said. 'You're absolutely correct,' said the committee's other co-chairman, Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, arguing that such sweeping change is needed. Republican senators also say prosecutors need the threat of longer prison sentences to give offenders incentive to successfully complete treatment. New York spends more than $500 million a year to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom can rebuild their lives faster if they receive treatment, said Michael Blain of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that espouses reducing both drug misuse and drug prohibition, and promoting the sovereignty of individuals. "
The article notes that "Twenty-seven states have rolled back mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, liberalized drug treatment options or otherwise eased drug statutes in the last year, Blain said. Former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller pushed the statutes through the New York Legislature in 1973 and 1974, at a time when he felt the state's inner cities were being lost to heroin addiction and judges were balking at imposing stiff sentences on drug offenders. About 2,000 inmates are serving up to life in New York prisons under the Rockefeller drug laws. More than 13,600 others are serving shorter mandatory sentences for less-severe drug violations. "
The 2003 political debates over reform of New York's harsh, oppressive Rockefeller drug laws began in earnest in mid-July, with the introduction of Governor Pataki's legislative reform package. The New York Times reported on July 16, 2003 ( "Governor Offers Legislation To Soften Harsh Drug Laws") that "Gov. George E. Pataki today released the details of his latest plan to soften New York's mandatory sentences for drug crimes, putting forward a bill he urged the State Legislature to pass. 'I think it's a very sound compromise, and I think it represents, really, a historic opportunity to reform these laws,' Mr. Pataki said. But any chance of consensus seemed to evaporate quickly, as the speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, laced into Mr. Pataki's proposal, saying it fell far short of reforming the Rockefeller-era drug laws, which all sides in Albany agree are too harsh."
According to the Times, "By the end of the day, one thing was clear: A debate that has dragged on for years in Albany was still not resolved despite another round of heated rhetoric, an earnest last-minute scramble at the session's close in June to find middle ground and another push by the governor to reach an agreement to change the laws. The perennial effort could be called Exhibit A for Albany's dysfunction, many outside the state capital say. 'This is a great public relations move, but it is bad public policy,' Andrew Cuomo, an advocate of changing the laws, said today of the governor's proposal. 'Now, we don't know what the bill actually means.' In many ways the reactions of Mr. Bruno and Mr. Silver answer the question of whether the governor's proposal has a chance. The two men must agree to pass legislation, in exactly the same form, for it to get to the governor for signing. It is a feat not often achieved. In this case, aides to Mr. Silver attacked everything about the governor's latest proposal, including the form in which it was written, its content and, more important, what was left out. They questioned the governor's commitment to the issue, saying Mr. Pataki's proposal could not be declared dead on arrival because it had not officially arrived: it was slipped under the door of an Assembly lawyer on Monday night while lawmakers were out of session and out of town. 'We are most disappointed by the complete lack of judicial discretion and the absence of any drug treatment diversion provision or funding for low-level offenders under this proposal,' Mr. Silver said in a joint statement with Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Democratic assemblyman from Queens who has made changing the laws a focus of his political career."
Reactions from others involved in reform efforts were mixed. The Albany Times-Union reported ( "Critics Pan Pataki Drug Law Proposal") that "Pataki aides said the plan, which would cut prison sentences for many drug offenders but increase penalties for those who use children or the Internet to ply their wares, reflected a conceptual compromise reached last month in marathon closed-door negotiations with legislative leaders and hip-hop music mogul Russell Simmons. Simmons endorsed the governor's plan Tuesday, as did Democratic presidential hopeful the Rev. Al Sharpton. But other drug law reform advocates who had attended the unusual meeting with Simmons and state leaders on June 18 insisted Pataki's proposal did not conform to the agreement reached that night. 'From my perspective, what they did was take a tentative agreement and add a lot of frills to it that eviscerates any of the good stuff that was in it,' said Deborah Small, director of public policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, who joined Simmons in trying to hash out the drug law overhaul. 'If this passes, it will do more harm than good.'"
The international human rights organization
Human Rights Watch issued a report on impact of the Rockefeller
drug laws on June 18, 2002. The report,
Collateral Casualties: Children of Incarcerated Drug
Offenders in New York, presents a statistical analysis
of the hidden costs of New York's harsh Rockefeller laws.
Among the findings:
In a news release dated June 18, 2002, Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program, said "Disproportionately harsh drug sentences have not only led to the unnecessary incarceration of tens of thousands of low-level drug offenders, but also deprived thousands of children of their parents." Fellner continued: "Safeguarding communities and protecting families from drug trafficking and drug abuse are important public interests. But the means chosen to combat drugs should neither violate human rights nor inflict unnecessary collateral harm."
A copy of the full report is available as a PDF from http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/usany/USA0602.pdf . The web version of the report is available from http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/usany/ . For more information, check out this 1997 report by HRW on the Rockefeller laws, "Cruel and Unusual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders." Also, HRW has this Focus Page on Reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
New York Governor George Pataki (R) released his newest proposal for reforming the state's drug laws in early June, 2002. The proposal was quickly dismissed by groups pushing for reform of New York's draconian Rockefeller laws. The Troy Record reported on June 8, 2002 ( "Pataki, Assembly Propose Rockefeller Drug Law Changes") that "Gov. George Pataki released a new proposal Friday to change mandatory sentencing laws for drug possession dating back to the days of former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. While Pataki portrayed the plan as a compromise designed to meet legislative objections to his earlier proposals, the initiative was immediately panned by critics who said the Republican governor is still not going far enough to ease the drug laws. 'Yet another press release from the governor,' said John Dunne, a former Republican state senator who voted for the original 'Rockefeller drug laws' but who now favors reform."
The Record noted that "The unveiling of a bill by Pataki follows Wednesday's release of the Democratic state Assembly's bargaining position on easing the drug laws. The Assembly said its bill would continue to give judges more sentencing discretion than the governor favors, and prosecutors less power to block the diversion of defendants into drug treatment than the governor would allow." The Record said that according to Chauncey Parker, Pataki's criminal justice services coordinator, the governor's plan "would allow more people into drug treatment by expanding the categories of drug offenders eligible for such referrals. The governor said, however, defendants must not have violence in their criminal records to be eligible for treatment. The governor said he'd also give more discretion to judges when sentencing nonviolent drug felons and reduce sentence length in some cases. For Class A-1 drug felons who are now subject to a minimum of 15 years to life in prison for a conviction, Pataki said his proposal would reduce their sentences to as little as 7 years and 2 months in prison. Pataki's plan would also increase sentences for violent and major drug traffickers. People who arm themselves while selling marijuana or narcotics would be subject to a five-year mandatory sentence, whether they use the firearm or not, and be considered a violent felon ineligible for diversion to a drug treatment program, Parker said."
Critics of the Rockefeller laws complain that neither proposal is adequate. According to the Record, "Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association prison watchdog group, said both the Assembly plan and the Pataki plan have flaws. 'Our fundamental critique of both plans is they both include broad exceptions in terms of the drug offenders who would be eligible to diversion,' Gangi said."
New York's Drop The Rock coalition will hold a march and concert/rally on June 15, 2002 in NYC. The "Drop the Rock March" will start at 12:30pm. Marchers will meet on 126th Street between Adam Clayton Powell & Frederick Douglas Blvd. From there, people will march to the concert/rally (which starts at 2:30) at Marcus Garvey Park at 122nd and Madison Ave. Details about the event are also available from the group's website. Event flyers are available from the group by clicking here.
Protesters took their message to the streets on May 8, 2002, to mark the beginning of the 30th and hopefully last year of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. As columnist Sheryl McCarthy wrote in New York Newsday on May 9, 2002 ( "It's Time For Tough Questions About Drug Law"), "They were out on Manhattan's Third Avenue yesterday: the retired judge, the pardoned former prison inmate, the prison reformers, the drug-policy people, the treatment-program people, the recovering addicts, a handful of lawyers and, as always, the relatives of those in prison. People like Evelyn Sanchez, 62, whose son has spent a decade in Attica and is still counting, and Minerva Dones, 76, whose grandson has spent seven years in the Greenhaven State prison facility in upstate New York. It was the first day of the 30th year since the enactment of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, and the people taking part in this rally were doing what they've done for years: demanding the repeal of laws that have filled more state prisons than any other laws that have ever been passed."
The harsh sentences required under the Rockefeller Laws have generated a great deal of opposition ever since their inception. As columnist Ellis Henican wrote in Newsday on May 8, 2002 ( "Sadly, Drug Laws Stay"), then-Governor Nelson "Rockefeller had been opposed on this not just by the usual civil libertarians and liberal groups. Many conservatives warned his rigid plan would only make things worse."
Henican continues: "He'd fought 'against
this strange alliance of established interests, political
opportunists and misguided soft-liners who joined forces and
tried unsuccessfully to stop this program,' he complained
at the signing ceremony.
The Rockefeller laws have become more and more unpopular over the years, but efforts to repeal them continue to run into stumbling blocks. As the New York Times reported on May 9, 2002 ( "Pataki Proposes Changes To Rockefeller Drug Laws"), "As protesters in New York and Albany spoke out against the state' harsh penalties for drug crimes today, Gov. George E. Pataki put forward yet another proposal for breaking a deadlock with Assembly Democrats over reducing sentences for drug offenders. It is the governor's third attempt in the last year and a half to reach an agreement with the Assembly on the issue. The penalties for drug crimes, enacted in the 1970's, rankle many black and Latino voters, groups the governor has been trying to please as part of his re-election campaign. Nine of 10 people serving time for drug offenses are black or Hispanic."
Unfortunately, as Ms. McCarthy wrote in her Newsday piece, "The drug-law reform that Pataki has on the table is lousy. It gives judges the power to reduce a small portion of the longest sentences. But it actually increases the penalties for marijuana-related crimes and provides not a single dollar for drug treatment. A proposal before the Assembly would give judges sentencing discretion in more cases and includes a treatment piece. But, frankly, none of the proposals is that great. Real drug-law reform would require making the sale and use of marijuana legal, thereby eliminating the arrests of hundreds of people every day and giving them criminal records. It would, quite frankly, legalize and regulate the sale of all narcotics. It would provide drug treatment for anybody who wanted it, without making it mandatory for non-violent addict who don't want it."
Indeed, even the New York Times noted in its piece that
"But the Assembly Democrats say there is less than meets
the eye to Mr. Pataki's proposal. For starters, only people
with one prior felony conviction or no criminal record at all
would be able to appeal to a judge for the chance to receive
treatment, and most addicted felons have more than one conviction.
In 2000, about 1,600 people imprisoned on drug convictions were
first-time offenders who could have been treated under the
governor's proposal, but 1,752 others would not have
qualified." The Times continues:
Prior to Wednesday's demonstration, victims of the Rockefeller Laws appeared on the Pacifica radio networks's Democracy Now. The segment also included a look at the racist travesty of justice perpetrated against the people of Tulia, TX (for more info on the Tulia situation click here). A streaming audio feed of the broadcast as well as a brief summary and guest list is available by clicking here.
For more information about the effort to 'Drop The Rock' and on New York's Mothers of the Disappeared, check the website for DropTheRock.org as well as the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.
A study by a nonprofit found that reform of New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws would result in saving millions of dollars a year. According to the Schenectady Daily Gazette on May 1, 2002 ( "Changes In Drug Laws Tied To Savings"), "The state could save more than $91 million by sending people convicted of second, nonviolent felony offenses to drug treatment instead of prison, according to the Legal Action Center. 'What we found, I believe, are really dramatic savings for the state,' said Anita Marton, senior attorney with the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on criminal justice, addiction and AIDS."
The Daily Gazette reported that "The Legal Action Center said its study showed the state could save $30,666 to $74,243 for every second felony offender diverted from prison to a treatment program. If 3,000 second felony offenders were diverted, the state would save anywhere from $91.9 million to $222.7 million. The Legal Action Center estimates more than 3,000 New York prisoners who are incarcerated for second, nonviolent felony offenses could be sent to treatment if the drug laws were changed. The center's figures include the savings from reduced health care and welfare costs as well as increased tax contributions from rehabilitated offenders, Marton said."
The Daily Gazette article continues:
Rap stars Redman, Method Man, and others are featured on a CD put together by hiphop artist Sista Asia. As reported by NYU's Washington Square News on April 2, 2002 ( "Rappers Lend Help To 'Drop The Rock'"), "For the past 12 months, Sista Asia has worked hard to bring 'Drop the Rock' to life. The compilation CD, named after an organization intent on having the Rockefeller Drug Laws repealed--laws which some say disproportionately affect communities of color--features artists such as Redman, Method Man, the Cocoa Brovaz, and Rah Digga, and includes production by Bucktown Productions and Klansmen. Working under Seven Figures Entertainment, Sista Asia's goal in putting together this CD has been to relay political awareness through music."
Money raised by the CD will go to help the families of prisoners locked away because of New York's harsh Rockefeller laws. As the News reported, "The goal of the project is to use the money generated by the album to fund visitation trips for the children of those imprisoned as a result of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. 'People get locked up for 15 to 20 for first time offenses and children get lost in the shuffle,' she said. 'My project [will] buy buses for the children for visitations.' Fast becoming one of the nation's biggest industries, prisons spend over three billion dollars on inmate housing alone. With thousands of people sent upstate, transportation for the families of the imprisoned has proven to be a problem. 'God willing there will be a volume II, III, IV,' she says. 'As long as we can keep it going we can create an organization just for the children and buses.'"
The New York Times reports that New York State Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver is offering a bill to loosen New York's stringent drug sentencing laws, "calling for the expansion of treatment options for drug offenders, for a reduction in the range of mandatory minimum sentences and for more discretion for judges to decide which drug felons should be given treatment rather than prison." ( "A New Plan To Roll Back Drug Terms," March 13, 2001 )
The Times story notes that the Democratic Assembly's bill is substantially different from a proposal introduced by Republican George Pataki (see below), and the "main sticking point will probably be over the scope of judicial discretion" in sentencing of some drug offenders. The story also reports that the Assembly bill "would set aside savings from the state's declining prison rolls to create 2,000 new treatment beds. Roughly 9,300 such resident treatment beds exist now, but they are not all for drug offenders. The governor's bill does not specifically set aside money for treatment; his aides have said such financing would come later."
Meanwhile, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle reports ( "Senate GOP Would Boos Rehab For Drug Convicts") that "While acknowledging the state needs to rewrite its drug-sentencing laws, Senate Republicans unveiled a $20 million plan yesterday to expand drug-treatment programs for convicts. The program would help up to 800 convicts a year enroll in drug-treatment programs rather than go to prison. But a judge and a prosecutor would have to agree. And it would be limited to people convicted of nonviolent crimes."
Former advocates of the Rockefeller laws are now some of the most vocal opponents. New York Newsday reports that former state Senator Douglas Barclay and "a handful of his fellow Republican sponsors of the controversial Rockefeller drug laws -- including former Garden City Sen. John Dunne and Warren Anderson, the Senate majority leader at the time -- have taken the unusual step of denouncing their own creation." Though many have worked in New York for these reforms for some time, the paper credits the retired lawmakers and former drug warriors "with helping to bring the movement from the political fringes to the mainstream, attracting groups such as the New York State Catholic Conference. And their sustained efforts almost certainly encouraged Gov. George Pataki to take the politically risky step of proposing to soften these laws." ReconsiDer, a nonprofit drug policy group in New York state, held an awards dinner in Albany to honor former Senators Barclay and Dunne for their efforts.
Protestors demonstrated outside Queens District Attorney Richard Brown's office recently. New York Newsday reported on March 1, 2001 ( "The War On Drug Laws") that Brown "is the target of activists because he has become the point man for the state's 62 district attorneys in lobbying against reform of the tough laws."
NY Governor George Pataki (R) has also released a detailed bill to reduce prison sentences for some drug crimes, while also adding new penalties for marijuana convictions. The New York Times reported on March 10, 2001 that the governor's proposal "would reduce penalties for the most serious nonviolent drug offenders: those convicted of Class A felonies, now punishable by a minimum sentence of 15 years to life, for instance, would have their sentences reduced to a minimum of 8-1/3 years to life."
The Times goes on to note however that under Governor Pataki's proposal, "those who are arrested repeatedly on charges of marijuana sales and possession would face felony charges, instead of misdemeanor charges as they do now. His bill would also stiffen penalties for possession and sale of large quantities of marijuana, and impose tougher sentences on those arrested on drug charges in parks."
Critics are skeptical of the Governor's proposal. According to the Times, Robert Gangi, of the Correctional Association of New York, said of Pataki's bill: "In fact, it may have very, very little effect, or it may actually increase the number of people being sent to state prison."
The New York Times reported on Jan. 17, 2001 that Governor George Pataki (R-NY) had proposed easing the state's infamously harsh drug laws, many of them dating from the Rockefeller administration ( "Pataki Presents Plan to Ease Laws on Drugs"). Though far from what critics of New York's current system are calling for, the governor's proposal is hailed in the Times as a good starting point for negotiations. Governor Pataki's plan would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, would replace treatment with mandatory sentences in some cases, and would give judges some discretion in sentencing decisions.
The Times reports that Governor Pataki's proposal would also make about 500 inmates out of the approximately 600 in NY state prisons serving sentences of 15 years to life or more eligible for reduction of their sentences. Violent offenders would not be eligible for sentence reduction. Democrats in the NY state Assembly, including Speaker Sheldon Silver, are pushing for much greater changes. (ReconsiDer provides a great deal of information on the New York laws on their website.)
Groups working toward reform of New York's
harsh drug offense sentencing laws include:
USA Today says that Governor Pataki is joining
a growing list of political leaders who are starting to realize
that the drug war is a waste, and that drug laws need to be
("NY Joins Campaign To
Reform Drug Laws") The story, by Kevin Johnson,
quotes Acting ONDCP Director Edward Jurith on the inevitability
of some change: