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New York Lightens Up on Some of the Harshest Drug Laws in the Country

Let's hope the changes mark the beginning of the end of New York's Rockefeller drug laws.
 
 
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New York State is about to enact major changes in its Rockefeller drug laws, which contain some of the harshest mandatory-minimum sentences in the nation. The activists who've been trying to repeal those laws for years say it's a very welcome move but doesn't go far enough.

"I think it's a really positive step forward. It is not the end of the Rockefeller drug laws, but hopefully, it's the beginning of the end," says Caitlin Dunklee of the Drop the Rock campaign, an umbrella group campaigning to repeal the laws.

The bill "breaches the mandatory-sentencing wall," adds Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, the prison-reform group behind Drop the Rock. It might divert half the state's convicted drug felons from prison, the group estimates.

The bill came about as part of a deal among the "three men in a room" who control New York's government: Gov. David Paterson, state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, all Democrats. They agreed to include it in the state's budget, so it would not be voted on separately. After several days of delay, the state Senate approved the bill on a 32-30 party-line vote on Thursday, April 2. Paterson has promised to sign it.

The new law eliminates the mandatory minimum of a year in prison for first offenders charged with Class B felonies (sale of up to 1/2 ounce of cocaine or heroin, or possession with intent to sell) and first or second offenders charged with lesser felonies (such as possession of 1/2 gram of cocaine). It also expands drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration. Second offenders charged with B felonies, who now face an automatic 4 1/2 to 9 years, might be able to get treatment instead of prison if they can prove they're drug-dependent.

On the other hand, the bill retains the mandatory-minimum sentences for all other accused dealers, and only about one-eighth of the state's 13,400 drug prisoners will be able to apply for reduced sentences.

The old law, Silver said in a statement, "has not impacted crime or reduced addiction, but, rather, has led to a massive increase in New York's prison population."

Drug offenders make up one-fifth of the state's male inmates and one-third of the female inmates. More than 90 percent of them are black or Latino, and about 40 percent are incarcerated for possession charges.

Paterson was arrested at a civil-disobedience protest against the Rockefeller laws in 2002, when he was a state senator representing Harlem, but he has taken a more cautious stance since he succeeded Eliot Spitzer as governor last year. He objected to several provisions in a drug-law bill passed by the Assembly in March.

Gangi credits activist pressure for getting him to compromise. The deal was reached on the night of March 25, a few hours after about 250 people demonstrated outside the governor's Manhattan offices.

"We heard that Paterson's staffers were asking, 'Can we make a deal before the rally?' " Gangi says.

According to Paterson spokeswoman Marissa Shorenstein, the governor agreed to end mandatory minimums for second offenders charged with felonies below Class B, and to allow drug prisoners to apply for resentencing.

But he insisted that accused drug offenders who wanted treatment instead of prison would have to plead guilty first, on the grounds that the threat of prison would make drug users more likely to stick with treatment. The governor's philosophy is "treat, don't punish, but treat to be effective," Shorenstein explains.

The bill also revives the Rockefeller law's original 15-years-to-life sentences, this time for "kingpins" convicted of selling more than $75,000 worth of drugs.

The state's prosecutors largely oppose easing the law. And the New York Daily News editorial page, long a loud voice for the "fry 'em" approach to crime, called the proposed changes the "Drug Dealer Protection Act" and said they would unleash a crime wave.

New York's current drug laws date from 1973, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was facing two problems. First, heroin-related crime was exploding, with dope fiends funding their habits with muggings and burglaries and dealers killing each other in business disputes.

Second, Rockefeller, the erstwhile standard-bearer of the Republicans' shrinking liberal wing, was contemplating another run for the party's presidential nomination, and he needed to prove that he was adequately "tough on crime."

The result was a law that mandated 15 years to life for sale of 2 ounces or more of heroin or cocaine or for possession of 4 ounces.

(Crime in New York continued to rise until the early 1990s, and New York City neighborhoods like Washington Heights and the Lower East Side -- low-income areas easily accessible to white buyers -- became open-air drug markets.)

Critics of the Rockefeller laws' harshness charge that they are "unjust and racially targeted," Linda Dechabert, head of Exponents, a harm-reduction group working with drug addicts, ex-prisoners and people with AIDS, said at the March 25 rally.

The racial disparities most likely stem from the ecology of the drug trade -- ghetto street dealers are more visible and violent than discreet white-collar dealers -- and the cumulative effects of racism in who gets stopped, who gets prosecuted and who gets imprisoned.

"It's easy to arrest blacks and Latinos, because they're in a confined area," notes Carl Dukes, 64, an ex-prisoner who attended the rally.

Another criticism is that penalties are determined by the weight of the drugs seized rather than by the defendant's role in the deal.

The most notorious case of that was Elaine Bartlett, a Harlem single mother who in 1983 was set up by an Albany cocaine dealer, who paid her $2,500 to deliver 4 ounces to him. Bartlett got 20 years to life, serving 16 years before she won clemency. Police allowed the dealer who hired her to continue operating in exchange for the information.

The state enacted mild reforms in 2004 and 2005. They reduced the 15-to-life sentences to 8 to 20 years, but did not affect the 90 percent of the state's drug prisoners convicted of lesser charges.

Activists developed four "pillars" for further-reaching reforms: restoring judicial discretion, expanding treatment and alternatives to prison, reducing sentences and retroactivity -- letting prisoners apply for the sentences they would have gotten under the revised laws.

By those standards, the proposed new law would do well on treatment. It's expected to provide an extra $50 million to $80 million for drug-treatment and alternatives-to-incarceration programs, such as the one run by the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

New York has a harm-reduction system well positioned to take advantage of this, notes Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, as there are well-established programs for drug rehab, needle exchange, methadone maintenance and overdose prevention.

Most activists agree, however, that the bill falls short on judicial discretion and retroactivity. For example, someone found guilty of selling drugs would still get an automatic 4 1/2-year minimum if they had been convicted of a violent felony in the past 10 years, says Gangi. Such a person might be dangerous -- or might have calmed down considerably since their previous crime.

"We're not saying people should not go to prison," he explains. "We're saying the judge should decide."

"It's unfair. You're caught with a little amount of drugs, and you serve a long, long term in prison," says Ashley O'Donoghue, a tall, thin man with "God's Son" tattooed on his neck. "It should be retroactive so the people who are still there can get a sentence that's more suitable for what they did."

O'Donoghue, 26, was arrested in 2003 when two white college students he'd been dealing cocaine to were nabbed and set him up for a 2 1/2-ounce sale, well above his usual range. Facing 15 to life, he pleaded guilty to a B felony and served five years of a 7-to-21-year sentence.

Comedian Randy Credico, a longtime drug-law activist who attended the March 25 rally dressed as Diogenes, "looking for an honest politician," says any changes in the law would be inadequate unless retroactive resentencing is "automatic." Less than half the 1,000 prisoners eligible to apply for shorter sentences under the 2004 law actually got them.

Nicholas Eyle of Reconsider, a Syracuse anti-prohibition group, is also not enthusiastic. "I don't want to sound like I don't support the change, but I'm not that excited," he says. "I'm not a fan of mandatory treatment."

Although rehab is preferable to prison, he says, most people arrested on drug charges are not addicts, and if they tell counselors that, they'll be told they're "in denial."

What the state really needs, he believes, is a "paradigm shift. If you want to save money and reduce crime, end prohibition. If you question the fundamentals, you have to conclude that prohibition doesn't work."

Many New Yorkers find it surprising that the state government could accomplish anything on such a controversial issue. The New York legislature is often called the most dysfunctional in the nation.

Virtually all major legislation is crafted by secret negotiations among the "three men in a room": the governor, the state Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker.

Democrats have long held a majority approaching 2-1 in the Assembly, the legislature's lower house. However, state Senate districts have been gerrymandered to aid the Republicans, who controlled it from 1965 to 2008.

Over the last 15 years of that era, the Senate's GOP leader, Joseph Bruno, was able to block all but token Rockefeller-law reform. He also gutted the state's rent-control laws and refused to let the Senate consider legalizing same-sex marriage.

Bruno resigned last summer, several months before he was indicted on federal corruption charges, and in November, the Democrats won a 32-30 majority in the Senate. That immediately revved up hopes among the state's progressive activists.

However, the ballots had scarcely been counted when three Senate Democrats threatened to ally with the Republicans unless they were given power and concessions.

Nicknamed the Gang of Three, they are Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, a rent-control foe with a long history of campaign-finance violations; Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn death-penalty advocate; and the fiercely anti-gay Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx.

The Democrats' majority was further threatened when Hiram Monserrate, a Queens liberal, was indicted for slashing his girlfriend. This has jeopardized Senate passage of several bills to strengthen rent control and is widely believed to have scotched any hope of it considering same-sex marriage.

Many activists also believe that upstate Republicans oppose reducing drug sentences because prisons are one of the few sources of steady jobs in the region, whose economy has been slumping since the 1970s. In 1973, when the Rockefeller laws passed, New York had 18 prisons. From 1973 to 1999, it built 51 new ones.

Nicholas Eyle disputes that notion, saying he doesn't believe that the dozen or so legislators from rural districts where prisons are prominent are a strong enough lobby to preserve the drug laws. Sayegh advocates replacing the 30,000 prison jobs with green jobs.

Still, economic issues may well have played a role. The state has been slammed with a $15 billion budget deficit. At $45,000 per inmate, the Silver statement emphasized, it costs New York more than $500 million a year to imprison drug offenders. The minimal changes enacted in 2004 have saved the state $100 million, it added.

"My Assembly colleagues and I continue in our pledge not to give up our fight for greater reform of New York state's ineffective and imprudent drug laws," Assembly Corrections Committee Chairman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, a longtime advocate of repealing the Rockefeller laws, said in a statement after the deal was announced. "While today's agreement brings us closer to our goal, we recognize the need to do more."

Steven Wishnia is a New York journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.