Selling Us a Dream
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Once again the legislature of New York state has failed to come to an agreement to change the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Associated Press reported that the Senate's chief representative on the committee, Sen. Dale Volker, accused Assembly Democrats of wanting to engineer a "jail break" by easing punishments too much for some offenders. This is the same individual that has a handful of prisons in his district, which are full of non-violent drug offenders from the inner city.
According to Drug Policy Alliance, 27 other states have made changes in similar laws in the last year, resulting in saved tax dollars and saved human lives. The best reported piece that showed the dysfunctional ways of the legislature was a recent NY Times article that pointed out that finally, for the first time the legislature was going to open their doors to the public to view their legislative hearings, which traditionally have been held in secret. Well, they should have kept the doors closed because now we had a chance to see politics at its worst.
The Republicans and Democrats argued for hours and could not come to an agreement on how to agree. Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, who is the co-chairman of a conference committee to change the Rockefeller Drug laws described it "as a way of setting up what is on the table in real terms so that we can know that we are getting something done". But a few days later the state Senate's Republican majority said it saw no purpose in continuing the conference committee.
To people outside the loop, it is seen as the standard trend in New York States dysfunctional political process. So angry at the quagmire in getting things done, it was also reported that a group of protestors in wheel chairs recently barricaded a group of lawmakers in a hearing room in Albany, NY forcing the Capitol police to rescue the legislators.
Rockefeller Drug Law reform is an issue that has been tossed around between the legislature and the courts for the last 31 years without any positive result. In the early years, the legislature had the gloves on between the parties, blaming instead the court system. They said the judicial process should change the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Let the courts declare these laws unconstitutional, they cried. A convenient way to evade responsibility. The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, in turn, denied addressing the issue and sternly declared it was a matter that the legislature should decide. God forbid it was declared unconstitutional. The judicial system would be bankrupt by the thousands of lawsuits filed by criminal defendants.
After that judicial blow to the mid-section, the legislature began dueling it out between the two parties. Each blamed the other for not changing the laws, while the governor danced around the issue. Do you blame the legislature or the governor for shedding responsibility? Who wants to get caught advocating to change an issue that could ruin an individuals career by looking "soft on crime"? And lets not forget the district attorney's office, which has been the most outspoken group to prevent any type of change. The same individuals live and die by their rates of convictions. However, let's look at the reality of the consequences. Thousands of individuals are rotting away in prison under these laws, also affecting thousands of families outside of the prison walls. Hey politicians, doesn't this matter?
The Wall Street Journal in an op-ed just reported that the former drug czar of the United States General Barry McCaffrey co-authored a piece calling to end NY's Rockefeller Drug laws. Ten years ago, I appeared on a television show with him that declared draconian drug laws were a violation of human rights. I was serving a 15-to-life sentence for a first time non-violent drug crime under these laws, from my 6'x9' cell in Sing Sing. I remember as clear as a bell the stern look on the general's face when he declared, "You can't lock your way out of the problem". In New York, it seems that is untrue, especially if you keep filling your prisons with drug offenders.
Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built in rural upstate communities, primarily in Republican Districts, negating that notion.
So what do we do to solve the problem of New York's dysfunctional political process caused by its politicians? I think I have the answer. In 1998 FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Sentencing) held a convention named "Metamorphosis" in Washington D.C. Its theme was change and transformation and several speakers were former politicians who had fallen from grace. Among them was Webbster Hubbell of the Clintons Whitewater scandal. Hubble, an associate attorney general of the Untied States, wound up doing time for a white-collar crime. Not serious time, but nevertheless, enough to get a taste of imprisonment. He spoke of how his thought process on the system dramatically changed while sitting in a jail cell during a prison lock down.
The federal government had just passed crack cocaine legislation, which led to several federal prisons to riot. As he sat in his cell like a caged animal, his mind opened up, bringing up his past. It made him remember a day when he signed a similar lock down order that would affect thousands of prisoners. This was his road to Damascus experience that led him to be an agent of change to seek a better system. As he spoke, I turned to another ex-prisoner and said, "This is it, this is how we change the system. We pass a law that makes it mandatory to spend some time in a jail cell before taking a political position or governmental office". Maybe then the system would benefit the people instead of those in power.
Anthony Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of NY Disappeared and author of "15 To Life" published by Feral House in Fall of 2004. He was granted clemency in 1997. For more drug war info go to www.15tolife.com