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New York City Council Votes to 'Drop The Rock'

Those whose lives have been torn apart by the brutal Rockefeller Drug Laws should know that additional help is on the way. The New York City Council has joined the struggle for reform.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws require incredibly harsh prison sentences for the possession or sale of a relatively small amount of drugs. Persons convicted of "Class A felonies", as they're called, regardless of the nature of their involvement, receive the same maximum sentence as people convicted of murder, arson, and kidnapping.

On Tuesday, October 22nd, Council Members Yvette Clarke, Chair of the Fire & Criminal Justice Services Committee, and Hiram Monserrate, Chair of the Select Committee on Civil Rights and Co-Chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, held a press conference and rally on the steps of City Hall to kick off "Drop the Rock Week" in the City Council. Several members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, as well as community activists and criminal justice advocates, joined them.

CLARKE HOLDS HEARING

Directly following this, Councilwoman Yvette Clarke's Committee convened a hearing on Resolution 241-A, sponsored by Hiram Monserrate and endorsed by the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. This Resolution calls upon the New York State Legislature to adopt meaningful reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and Second Felony Offender Laws. The Resolution supports discretion for judges to rehabilitate addicts, funding for expanded treatment options for non-violent drug offenders, and a reduction in the range of mandatory minimum sentences. It also supports tougher sentences for drug trafficking and those who use a child or gun to commit a drug crime.

Speaking on why the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus supports this Resolution, Co-Chair Helen Foster said, "These laws are useless when it comes to deterring drug crime or reducing recidivism. What they are good at is incarcerating approximately 100,000 people annually - nearly all of them Black or Hispanic residents of New York City. The Caucus is sending the State a message that our communities have lost patience with false promises. We need comprehensive reform now!"

At the hearing, representatives of organizations and individuals spoke both factually and movingly about the hideous injustice of these laws and why there is a desperate need for reform. It was spelled out that while African Americans and Latinos comprise 32.3% of New York's population, they make up 94.3% of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies - even though drug use and selling are almost proportionate between races. Among women, 82% of Latina women and 71% of African American women sentenced to prison were sentenced for drug offenses - compared with only 41% of white women. In many cases these people are serving longer sentences than those who committed rape or murder.

And it was made vivid that these laws affect real lives. There was testimony by a mother whose son died in prison, and from a young man who, after loosing an arm, became involved in drugs and subsequently went to jail for almost 15 years.

RESOLUTION COMES BEFORE CITY COUNCIL

As it turned out, this hearing was taking place on the day that State Senate Majority Leader Bruno made known his intent to revisit the issue after years of delay. A vote on the matter may be coming very soon. Therefore, it was most timely that the very next day, this Resolution was up for a vote in the City Council.

First to address the issue was Councilman Monserrate who said, "I clearly understand the need to protect our neighborhoods and to make our city safe. Prior to coming to the Council I did just that as a member of the New York Police Department. However I also understand the need to protect Constitutional Rights and Equal Protection Under the Law. These laws represent a clear disparity in their application with destructive consequences to communities of color."

Councilwoman Clarke spoke of the fact that for almost 30 years - a full generation - New Yorkers have been victimized by these extremely Draconian laws, which are unduly cruel and unusual punishment for the seriousness of the crime. "This resolution allows the Council to take a stand on a debate that affects our communities, our children and our futures," she said.

Councilman Al Vann commented on how frustrating it used to be when he was in the State Assembly and they used to press hard to get the Rockefeller Drug Laws overturned, but always ran into resistance in the governor's office. "I fully support Resolution 241-A," he said, "and hope that with this being an election year, with pressure coming from the City Council, and with light being shed in other places, that some justice will come to people who do not deserve what they're getting in these state prisons."

The final speaker was Councilman Miguel Martinez who talked of the devastating effect of these laws on Latino and African American families. "The time has come to change these laws and bring families together that have been separated for many years," he concluded.

IT PASSES!

All told, eight Council Members spoke in favor of the Resolution. When a voice vote was taken, it passed overwhelmingly. This marked a new step in the ethical evolution of the New York City Council for this was the first time the Council has taken a position on Rockefeller Drug Law reform.

After the meeting, a jubilant Hiram Monserrate stated, "Today the Council issued a call for action. For years, Governor Pataki has declared his support for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but nothing changed. After years of turning a blind eye - while generations of children from New York City's communities of color filled our jails - Albany has finally signaled it's intent to pass real reform. We look forward to working with them to make this a reality."

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