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Socialist Worker Online, Sept. 2, 2005
by Anthony Papa
(ANTHONY PAPA 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 Mothers of the New York Disappeared and wrote 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom.)
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ALBANY, N.Y., politicians, including Gov. George Pataki, proclaimed that the recent Rockefeller drug law reforms that went into effect at the beginning of this year were significant changes.
In theory, these reforms would affect about 450 New York prisoners convicted of A-1 felonies. The terrible, but not startling, truth is that only a handful of prisoners have gotten relief.
According to the Department of Corrections, about 66 prisoners were re-sentenced, but only 21 were set free as of April 30, 2005. These are handpicked cases that are the least detrimental to the careers of judges and district attorneys.
I have sat in on a half a dozen of these re-sentencing cases. The first three applicants were given time served. In these cases, the courtrooms were full of reporters and concerned activists, along with family members.
The next three cases were not that lucky. All seemed similar to the first three. However, the press wasn’t there, and only a handful of people were present, which put the decision-making process in a different light.
One case in particular hit home: a middle-aged mother who was arrested in 1999 with a few ounces of cocaine was sentenced to 17-to-life for a first offense. She was a drug mule, according to the facts of the record. But the Queens district attorney’s office twisted and manipulated the facts to make her look like she was a kingpin who had abused her young daughter because the child was present in the room with a package of cocaine.
Sitting in the courtroom was this traumatized teen, who has been placed in a foster home. She had lost her mother and her childhood. She was praying for her mother along with two nuns who she now lives with. The judge and Queens District Attorney Dick Brown agreed to reduce her mother’s sentence to nine years-to-life--leaving her to serve an additional five years. The daughter left the courtroom in tears.
In New York City, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who is running for re-election against former Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, has decided to stick it to a prisoner who has already served 14 years of a 33-to-life sentence for a Rockefeller conviction.
The district attorney’s office has said they would oppose Junior Gumbs’ re-sentencing application on the grounds that he was a major drug dealer. The facts say something different--in light of recent developments with the lead police officer on the case, discredited former Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who is now mired and sullied in professional and private scandals.
Junior’s mother, Evelyn Sanchez, who is the Latino coordinator of the Mothers of the N.Y. Disappeared, has wiped out her life savings for legal fees in trying to regain her son’s freedom. Despite the fact that she has terminal cancer, she has been in the forefront of the battle to change the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Sanchez has said, “I worked all my life and spent all my money on lawyers. I have none left to put my daughter through college. Now I am going to die and will never see my son freed. You call this a democracy? No, it’s not. It’s not justice at all.”
This June, the New York legislature passed Senate Bill 5880, which would allow prisoners with A-2 felonies to apply for re-sentencing. To judge from the previous change, only a small amount of prisoners will be released. But even knowing this, Pataki is hesitating to sign the bill.
When will politicians take into consideration the human aspect of the drug war and stop thinking about relief based on how the public will view them? When will justice finally be served for the people and not the benefit of political aspirations?