Gabriel Sayegh

The Death of Hakeem Kuta: Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

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Healthcare Reform Could Transform Drug Policy and Mass Incarceration

What does the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mean for drug policy? The impact could be transformative, if reformers seize the moment. A new issue brief — From Handcuffs to Healthcare — published by DPA and the ACLU outlines how the ACA could help our country end the war on drugs and move toward a health-based approach to drug policy.

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Rally in New York Demands End to Bogus Marijuana Arrests

In January of this year, during his 2013 State of the State speech, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a bold call to stop discrimination in New York. “We are one New York, and as one New York we will not tolerate discrimination,” he said. He noted the “challenge posed by the ‘stop and frisk’ police policies,” and he cited the related marijuana arrest problem in New York. Approximately 45,000 people were arrested in New York for marijuana possession in 2012, with nearly 40,000 of those arrests in New York City alone, making the Big Apple the marijuana arrest capital of the world. The Governor called for immediate action: “These arrests stigmatize, they criminalize, they create a permanent record. It's not fair. It's not right. It must end. And it must end now.”

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UPDATED: Jon Bon Jovi's Teen Daughter Arrested After Heroin Overdose -- Why She Shouldn't Have Been

UPDATE: The charges against Bongiovi and Grant have been dropped.

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False Claims on Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Lead to Credibility Gap for Prosecutors

A new report released this week by the Legal Aid Society of New York shows that the changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2004 and 2005 have been a huge success-- saving taxpayers tens of millions and producing remarkably low levels of recidivism of people who have been re-sentenced and released from prison.

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Rockefeller Drug Laws Are a Crime

The draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws represent a misguided and ineffective regime for addressing drug use and addiction -- health issues, not criminal issues. With legislation passed this week by the Assembly, New York may be ready to shift towards a more reasonable -- and affordable -- approach guided by public health and safety. Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers, most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record. Approximately 12,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 21 percent of the prison population.

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A New Approach to Drugs Would Save New York Hundreds of Millions of Dollars

While New York reels from the most severe budget crisis since the Great Depression, Gov. David A. Paterson and the legislature are scrambling to close ever-expanding deficits. "We're not going to get out of this quagmire we've built until we reduce our spending," said the governor during a Nov. 12 press conference.

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New York Must Reform Its Racist Drug Laws

This April, the New York State Assembly passed important legislation to reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, increases drug treatment alternatives to incarceration, expands judicial discretion to restore fairness in our courts and, critically, allows for people currently serving harsh prison terms for low-level drug offenses to seek much-needed relief.

The Assembly should be commended for passing smart reforms. But where are the governor and the state Senate on drug law reform?

While running for governor, Eliot Spitzer campaigned on a promise: "Day One, Everything Changes." Spitzer made campaign statements in support of real reform of the laws. Lt. Gov. David Paterson was a long-time reform champion while Senate minority leader. Families and advocates working for repeal of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws were cautiously optimistic about Spitzer's promise. It seemed entirely possible that on Day One, the Rockefeller laws, after nearly 34 long, terrible years, might finally be repealed.

But in the first hundred days of the new administration, drug law reform went missing in action. Spitzer took on a variety of important issues, but the Rockefeller Drug Laws didn't even make his priority list for the end of the legislative session.

Why is it so hard to win real reform, when everyone knows these laws are racist, ineffective, wasteful and unjust? So asks longtime advocate Cheri O'Donoghue, whose son, Ashley, is serving seven to 21 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Ashley is one of more than 14,000 people incarcerated under these harsh laws.

The answer to Cheri's question is downright sinister, but it's no secret. The reason the Rockefeller Drug Laws haven't been done away with is because of a despicable trinity of racism, cash cows and the U.S. census, not to mention the people who rely on this trinity for their political survival. From 1817 to 1981, New York built 33 prisons. But from 1982 to 2000, New York built 38 more prisons -- all of them upstate. The unprecedented prison boom was largely an economic development plan meant to ameliorate the job loss upstate. Rural, white communities were clamoring to build and staff prisons. The Rockefeller Drug Laws delivered the bodies with harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses.

The RAND Corp. and other think tanks have shown that drug use and abuse is roughly equal across all racial groups. But the Rockefeller Drug Laws always have been marked by severe racial bias. Today, 91 percent of the people incarcerated under these laws are black and Latino. It's a scenario we'd expect to find in an apartheid state, not a democracy.

Once elected, Spitzer proposed the possibility of closing half-empty prisons in upstate New York, saving millions of dollars. Many groups applauded Spitzer, because New York's prison population has dropped in recent years and its archaic prison industrial complex needs an overhaul. The leading voices against studying closing prisons, though, were politically very powerful. The correction officers union and upstate politicians have parlayed the politics of imprisonment into lucrative businesses and political careers. The prospects for reform have at least dimmed, if they haven't died altogether.

The plot thickens, though. More than 76 percent of the state's prison inmates come from New York City. The U.S. Census Bureau counts them as residents of the upstate prisons in which they're incarcerated, not as residents of the communities from which they came.

Why does this matter? According to the Prison Policy Initiative, if prisoners were not counted as "residents," seven upstate Senate districts would be 5 percent short of their required population size, and thus have to be redrawn. This means that senators in those districts -- all of them Republicans -- would lose their seats, causing Republicans to lose their slim Senate majority. Unsurprisingly, Senate Republicans remain staunch opponents of repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Two vocal reform opponents -- Sen. Dale Volker of suburban Buffalo and Sen. Michael Nozzolio of the Finger Lakes -- have more than 17 percent of the state's prisoners in their districts. Is it any wonder why they oppose reform?

Spitzer was elected on his record as a crusader against waste and corruption, no matter what powerful interests stood in his way. Advocates for drug law reform hoped the new governor would stand up to the corruption and racism blocking real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. He now has that chance, with the legislation passed by the Assembly and sent to the Senate. But the Senate, under Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, will block those reforms unless the governor gets more directly involved.

For the sake of justice, and families like the O'Donoghues, let's demand that the governor makes a priority of drug law reform.

Because if nothing changes, nothing changes.

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