Like a Rock
Despite protestations from all of New York's key political actors that they are determined to reform the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, another legislative session ended this week with the laws unchanged. Last minute negotiations over "reforms" that were only marginally acceptable to real reformers faltered after a last-minute intervention by Republican Gov. George Pataki. Legislators will have to return to Albany for a special summer session to deal with the state budget and other issues, so there is a slim chance lawmakers could cut a deal then, but it appears unlikely. And given the deal state Assembly leader Rep. Sheldon Silver (D), state Senate leader Joseph Bruno (R) and Pataki were pursuing, reformers are not spilling too many tears over its collapse.
Under the Rockefeller drug laws, in place since the early 1970s, people caught in possession of as little as four ounces or selling as little as two ounces of a controlled substance get mandatory minimum 15-to-life sentences, while other drug offenders earn similarly harsh treatment. As a result, the state's prison population has swollen, primarily with black or brown offenders. Drug prisoners now make up 38 percent of the prison system -- nearly twice the national average -- and a staggering 93 percent of them are Latinos and African-Americans. Many are housed in prisons in conservative, lily-white upstate counties where the Rockefeller drug laws serve as an effective jobs program for prison guards.
After years of mounting pressure to amend or undo the laws, Bruno and Silver appeared poised as recently as three weeks ago to approve reforms that would have reduced sentences for "A" felons, the ones doing 15-to-life (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/340/sortof.shtml). But that measure would not have helped the much more numerous "B" felons and other drug offenders, nor did it deal with other key issues for drug reformers, including the restoration of sentencing discretion to judges and making any reforms retroactive. Still, the deal was too much for Pataki, who, backed by the state's powerful prosecutors, intervened at the last moment over the weekend with deal-breaking demands to add sentencing enhancements to allow prosecutors to seek longer sentences in some cases.
"I had a meeting with Bruno last week, and he assured me we would have an agreement by Tuesday," said Michael Blain, Policy Director for Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) and DPA's man in Real Reform 2004 (http://www.realreform2004.org), an umbrella group formed this year to carry on the years-long struggle to kill the Rockefeller laws. "But then Pataki weighed in and broke the deal by attempting to add sentencing enhancements that he knew were unacceptable to both the Assembly and the Real Reform coalition. Where's my deal? Was Bruno stringing us along?"
But Blain conceded that even had the deal succeeded, it would not have been the reform he was looking for. That was a view universally shared by reform activists. "Even if anything had passed we wouldn't have considered it reform," said Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York (http://www.corrassoc.org), a member of the Real Reform coalition. "It was limited and cosmetic. It would have reduced prison sentences for some categories of drug offenders, but the effect would have been limited. We were not disappointed when we heard there would be no deal, because what they were proposing was no real movement on the issue. It was not real reform, and if politicians attempt to present it to the public as reform, they are misrepresenting what they are doing."
"We thought there would be a small change that we wouldn't be happy with," said Randy Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (http://www.kunstler.org) and the prisoner family group New York Mothers of the NY Disappeared, also members of the Real Reform coalition. "It would have been like going to Las Vegas, dropping $200,000 in the slot machine, coming up with two cherries, and calling yourself a winner. We cannot settle for a small payoff."
As reformers lick their wounds and plot their next steps, some divisions have emerged.
"We have used the wrong approach," said Blain. "We need to tell legislators they need to reform those laws not because the laws are wrong -- they don't seem to care -- but because there will be consequences for them if they don't. They cannot continue to seek Latino and African-American votes while ignoring drug law reforms that clearly affect the African-American and Latino communities. As citizens and advocates, we have to hold them accountable."
DPA and the Democratic-leaning organization MoveOn.org attempted to do just that last week. In a message sent out to more than 130,000 MoveOn subscribers, the groups placed the blame squarely on Gov. Pataki:
"Pataki is trying to water down the reform proposal so much as to make it almost meaningless... Pataki's on the verge of killing our one chance for real reform this year... Governor Pataki needs to keep his promise and reform the Rockefeller drug laws. Please call Gov. Pataki now... Let him know you understand that he is the obstacle to real reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, and ask him to support real reform, not kill it."Credico differed tactically from Blain on the question of momentum and incrementalism. While Blain argued that the movement could build on small victories, Credico scoffed. "If the agreement they were talking about passed, it would not have been sufficient, and it might have killed any momentum for real reform. Remember, we don't want reforms on the margins, we want to repeal these laws."
Credico's view is colored by the idea that current New York drug laws serve a latent social purpose far beyond keeping our kids safe from drugs. "These Rockefeller laws are about race and class and social control," he said. "Right now, the drug laws are the vehicle to impose that control. If the Rockefeller laws suddenly vanished, they would find another way," he argued. "Race is the key issue here, and racism is just as deeply embedded in New York as it is in Alabama or Mississippi," he said. "And if you want to go a little further, the issue is capitalism. Right now, we are in what looks like a near fascist moment in this country. We need another system because this one is fundamentally broken. We need a revolution," said Credico, sounding like a fire-breathing SDSer from the days of yore. "The legal system and the courts are designed to put black and brown people in prison, and the appeals courts are to keep them there."
While Credico sounds ready to take to the streets, Blain is ready to return to the back rooms of Albany. "The legislature has to come back this summer to pass the budget, and there are other outstanding issues it has to deal with," he said. "Something could still happen on Rockefeller reform, but if it does it is likely to be only tinkering around the edges. Even if we do something this summer, real reform means real sentencing reductions, real sentencing discretion for judges, real treatment opportunities, and retroactivity. This is a long-term campaign and it could take years to dismantle these laws. That's not a defeatist statement," Blain emphasized, "that's a determined one."
In his conversation with DRCNet, Credico vowed repeatedly that he was done, burned out, finished working the issue. But at the same time, he revealed why, despite all his frustrated talk about dropping out, he remains active. "I try to step back, but then I get another phone call. Someone like Darius King. He's in the third year of an 11 and a half year stretch. He was sentenced as a prior felon for an offense nine and a half years ago. In six months, that offense wouldn't have counted. He supposedly sold a nickel bag to a guy, even though the guy he supposedly sold it to wasn't found with any drugs. The judge told him to cop a plea and he could have 4-to-8 years. But Darius said he was innocent. He was found guilty, the judge said he should have taken the deal, and gave him twice as much time. His daughter is 18 and paralyzed from the neck down. His 73-year-old mother, Flora, has to take care of her. There are too many stories like that," Credico sighed. "That's why I can't quit."