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So Close, Yet So Far: The Road to Reform

A victim of the Rockefeller drug laws talks about his experience in prison for a nonviolent drug charge and the possibility of reform.
 
 
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In 1973 under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York State passed the toughest drug laws in the nation. Since their enactment these laws have been considered the answer when it comes to solving the drug epidemic and capturing drug kingpins. Approaching their 30th year anniversary, neither ambition has been fulfilled. New York's gulags are bursting at their seams with over 19,000 low-level drug offenders, and drugs are more available then ever. Furthermore, studies have shown that treatment is much more effective than incarceration in halting drug abuse and reducing recidivism. If the Rockefeller Drug Laws have proven not to be effective, you might ask, why do they still exist? In reality the harsh sentencing guidelines, with their mandatory minimums, have fueled the prison industrial complex, in the process creating economic development in mostly depressed rural upstate communities. Thirty-eight prisons have been built since 1982 at a cost of over a billion dollars annually to operate in Republican senate districts. This explains in large part why these laws are still in effect.

I know first hand of the draconian nature the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I was a first time non-violent offender who was sentenced to 15-years-to-life for passing an envelope containing four and one-half ounces of cocaine to an undercover officer in New York's Westchester County in 1984. An individual I met in my bowling league set me up in a sting operation, when he offered me $500 to deliver a package. My one mistake cost me 12 years of my life.

While in prison I discovered my talent as an artist and in 1988 I painted a self-portrait titled "15 Years to Life"; in 1994 it was displayed at the Whitney Museum of Art, which led to media exposure of my case. Two years later, Governor George Pataki granted me clemency.

When the system released me from Sing-Sing I began speaking out against the laws that had imprisoned me. It was then that I met Randy Credico, who directs the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice [ http://www.kunstler.org/]. He wanted to know what his organization could do to fight the drug war in New York. We came up with the idea of organizing family members of those imprisoned under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in a manner modeled after the Argentina mothers of the disappeared - mothers and grandmothers who regularly took to the streets, protesting against the government's "Dirty War" torture, murder and disappearance of accused left-wingers.

On May 8th 1997, the NY "Mothers of the Disappeared" staged their first rally at Rockefeller Center in NYC. About two dozen family members held signs with photos of their love ones who had disappeared because of New York's drug laws.

This simple but dramatic gesture led to amazing media coverage. We knew at that point we had given birth to a movement that was able to reach out to citizens because it put a human face on the war on drugs. The event became a weekly affair and eventually expanded to different cities in New York State. Numerous advocates have joined our ranks. They include celebrities like comic actor and TV host Charles Grodin, religious leaders such as Cardinal O 'Connor, and former politicians.

With a small group of about 25 dedicated individuals, in five years we managed to shift public opinion and changed the face of the drug war in New York State. Once this occurred many elected officials spoke out, putting aside their fears of political death that had been traditionally associated with drug reform. Finally in 2001, Governor Pataki along with the Assembly and Senate, called for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Both houses submitted bills with their own version of what changes should be made. This triggered an on-going battle that ended the legislative session in a deadlock.

This pushed us even more to fight for change. Since an election year for the governor approached, we decided to use the NY Mothers of the Disappeared to respond to the fact that many non-violent drug offenders sat in prison rotting away while politicians wallowed in debate. An ad campaign was developed that targeted Hispanic and black voters - a bloc Pataki seeks to placate. These stinging ads portrayed the governor as the main reason why 94% of drug offenders in New York's prisons were black and Latino. The governor's popularity among this population suddenly plummeted, forcing him to seek a way to stop our protests. For this mission the governor sent Chauncy Parker, his newly appointed Director of Criminal Justice, to meet with us.

Parker pitched the Governor's proposed bill to change the Rockefeller Drug Laws, detailing the formal aspects of the law. For the most part the audience of about 20 family members listened, but did not really understand the complicated terminology. After a while, an elderly Hispanic women who was in very poor health interrupted him. She asked Parker how the governor's bill would help her imprisoned son of 15 years to come home.

Chauncy stopped dead in his sentence and responded. He said if the assembly would pass the governor's bill her son would be eligible for immediate release. The women smiled and tears of joy ran down her face. Another black woman asked the same question. "Immediate release" was his answer and with a pause, he added: " If the governor's bill is passed." Everyone in the room was full of happiness with the hope that the Rockefeller Drug Laws would be repealed.

The meeting left us all with the idea that all the hard work we have been doing for years had finally paid off. There was only a month left in the year's legislative session. Hope was dwindling fast as both sides could not come to an agreement. On June 12, 2002, the NY Mothers of the Disappeared were invited to a meeting with Pataki. The night before, the Governor had pushed through the Senate an additional bill that would affect only Class A-1 felons. This would allow about two hundred prisoners to be eligible for immediate release if the Assembly passed the bill. Not surprisingly, most of those incarcerated who would be eligible were family members of the NY Mothers of the Disappeared.

A dilemma of moral proportions arose. Would we take the proffered carrot by the string and support the governor freeing our love ones, even though all of his legislation fell far short of true reform? We listened as Governor Pataki blamed the Assembly for not cooperating with him. The meeting lasted for over an hour. When we left, we were part of a press conference in which New York Assembly leader Sheldon Silver blamed the governor for not cooperating with the Assembly. We listened as our dreams of changing the Rockefeller Drug Laws began to fade away. The 2002 legislative session ended with no resolution, leaving us in anguish for being so close, yet so far in reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

We held another meeting on July 29th with Chauncy Parker. We found out that serious negotiations were still being held and that the possibility of reform existed in a special session of the legislature if they could come to some kind of agreement. Our message to Governor Pataki, the Senate and Assembly is a simple one. We will not take a position and support any pending legislation. All we can say is please put aside the political rhetoric of crime and politics and realize that there is a human element involved. Then maybe we all can walk hand in hand on common ground to change the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

You can learn more about Anthony Papa's experience in the war on drugs, and discover his art at www.15yearstolife.com.