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Families Against Mandatory Minimums: National Call-In Day

Thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us. Your calls will make an important difference. The National Call-In Day is part of "Crack the Disparity" National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The current law: * overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine to powder cocaine; * contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers; * disproportionately affects African Americans; and * uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers. Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough! It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate, mark your calendar for April 23. FAMM will send out contact information for your Congressional representative and two senators as well as talking points the day before the call-in.
Date: 
Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:01am - 11:59pm

Sentencing: US Jail, Prison Population Hits Another Record High, Well Over Half a Million Drug Offenders Behind Bars

In its latest survey of US jails and prisons, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported at the end of March that the number of people behind bars in the US had set yet another all-time record. According to the BJS, there were nearly 2.4 million people imprisoned in the US on June 30 of last year, or one out of every 131 US residents.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/prisondorm.jpg
prison dorm
More than 1.4 million people were locked up in state prisons and another 200,000 in the federal prison system. Additionally, almost 800,000 found themselves in jail at the end of last June.

This BJS report does not break down the numbers by offense categories. In state prison systems, drug offenders typically account for between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, and they account for well over half of all federal prisoners. Assuming the lowball figure of 20% and applying it to jail populations as well, the number of drug war POWs was somewhere in the neighborhood of 550,000.

While the prison population continued to increase, the rate of increase is slowing. During the first six months of 2008, it increased by 0.8%, compared to an increase of 1.6% during the same period the previous year. The rate of growth in jail populations was 0.7%, the lowest rate of increase since Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981.

Some 16 states, led by the sentencing reform states of California and Kentucky, actually saw decreases in prison populations. In 18 of the states reporting prison population growth, the average rate of growth (1.6%) was nearly half as low as the rate the previous year (3.1%) But in the 16 remaining states it was full-steam ahead, led by Minnesota (up 5.2%), Maine (up 4.6%), and Rhode Island and South Carolina (up 4.3%).

And even though the federal prison population passed the 200,000 mark, that may be running out of steam too. The growth rate of 0.8% was the lowest for any six-period since BJS began collecting the data in 1993, the year Bill Clinton assumed the presidency.

Still, since 2000, when US imprisonment levels were already at historic highs, the US prison and jail population has increased by a whopping 19%, or more than 373,000 prisoners. That is the equivalent of an entire medium-sized city, such as Wichita (pop. 360,000), Honolulu (pop. 375,000), or Raleigh (pop. 376,000) vanishing behind bars in less than a decade.

Of the 800,000 people in jails last June 30, 52% were housed in the nation's 180 largest jails, all with average daily populations exceeding 1,000 inmates. Nearly two-thirds (63%) were jailed awaiting court action or had not been convicted. More than a million people were jailed every month in the year ending last June 30, for a total of 13.6 million.

African-Americans continue to figure prominently and disproportionately in the inmate population. Black male prisoners accounted for 37% of the male prison population, and while that figure was down from 41% the previous year, it still shows black males being incarcerated at a rate 6.6 times that of white males.

Feature: Twenty Years of Drug Courts -- Results and Misgivings

The drug court phenomenon celebrates its 20th birthday this year. The first drug court, designed to find a more effective way for the criminal justice system to deal with drug offenders, was born in Miami in 1989 under the guidance of then local prosecutor Janet Reno. Since then, drug courts have expanded dramatically, with their number exceeding 2000 today, including at least one in every state.

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drug court scene
According to Urban Institute estimates, some 55,000 people are currently in drug court programs. The group found that another 1.5 million arrestees would probably meet the criteria for drug dependence and would thus be good candidates for drug courts.

The notion behind drug courts is that providing drug treatment to some defendants would lead to better outcomes for them and their communities. Unlike typical criminal proceedings, drug courts are intended to be collaborative, with judges, prosecutors, social workers, and defense attorneys working together to decide what would be best for the defendant and the community.

Drug courts can operate either by diverting offenders into treatment before sentencing or by sentencing offenders to prison terms and suspending the sentences providing they comply with treatment demands. They also vary in their criteria for eligibility: Some may accept only nonviolent, first-time offenders considered to be addicted, while others may have broader criteria.

Such courts rely on sanctions and rewards for their clients, with continuing adherence to treatment demands met with a loosening of restrictions and relapsing into drug use subjected to ever harsher punishments, typically beginning with a weekend in jail and graduating from there. People who fail drug court completely are then either diverted back into the criminal justice system for prosecution or, if they have already been convicted, sent to prison.

Drug courts operate in a strange and contradictory realm that embraces the model of addiction as a disease needing treatment, yet punishes failure to respond as if it were a moral failing. No other disease is confronted in such a manner. There are no diabetes courts, for example, where one is placed under the control of the criminal justice system for being sick and subject to "flash incarceration" for eating forbidden foods.

Conceptual dilemmas notwithstanding, drug courts have been extensively studied, and the general conclusion is that, within the parameters of the therapeutic/criminal justice model, they are successful. A recently released report from the Sentencing Project is the latest addition to the literature, or, more accurately, review of the literature.

In the report, Drug Courts: A Review of the Evidence, the group concluded that:

  • Drug courts have generally been demonstrated to have positive benefits in reducing recidivism.
  • Evaluations of the cost-effectiveness of drug courts have generally found benefits through reduced costs of crime or incarceration.
  • Concern remains regarding potential "net-widening" effects of drug courts by drawing in defendants who might not otherwise have been subject to arrest and prosecution.

"What you have with drug courts is a program that the research has shown time and time again works," said Chris Deutsch, associate director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in suburban Washington, DC. "We all know the problems facing the criminal justice system with drug offenders and imprisonment. We have established incentives and sanctions as an important part of the drug court model because they work," he said. "One of the reasons drug courts are expanding so rapidly," said Deutsch, "is that we don't move away from what the research shows works. This is a scientifically validated model."

"There is evidence that in certain models there is success in reducing recidivism, but there is not a single model that works," said Ryan King, coauthor of the Sentencing Project report. "We wanted to highlight common factors in success, such as having judges with multiple turns in drug court and who understand addiction, and building on graduated sanctions, but also to get people to understand the weaknesses."

"Drug courts are definitely better than going to prison," said Theshia Naidoo, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has championed a less coercive treatment-not-jail program in California's Proposition 36, "but they are not the be-all and end-all of addressing drug abuse. They may be a step forward in our current prohibitionist system, but when you look at their everyday operations, it's pretty much criminal justice as usual."

That was one of the nicest things said about drug courts by harm reductionists and drug policy reformers contacted this week by the Chronicle. While drug courts can claim success as measured by the metrics embraced by the therapeutic-criminal justice complex, they appear deeply perverse and wrongheaded to people who do not embrace that model.

Remarks by Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy hit many of the common themes. "If drug courts result in more people being caught up in the criminal justice system, I do not see them as a good thing," he said. "The US has one out of 31 people in prison on probation or on parole, and that's a national embarrassment more appropriate for a police state than the land of the free. If drug courts are adding to that problem, they are part of the national embarrassment, not the solution."

But Zeese was equally disturbed by the therapeutic-criminal justice model itself. "Forcing drug treatment on people who happen to get caught is a very strange way to offer health care," he observed. "We would see a greater impact if treatment on request were the national policy and sufficient funds were provided to treatment services so that people who wanted treatment could get it quickly. And, the treatment industry would be a stronger industry if they were not dependent on police and courts to be sending them 'clients' -- by force -- and if instead they had to offer services that people wanted."

For Zeese, the bottom line was: "The disease model has no place in the courts. Courts don't treat disease, doctors and health professionals do."

In addition to such conceptual and public policy concerns, others cited more specific problems with drug court operations. "In Connecticut, the success of drug courts depends on educated judges," said Robert Heimer of the Yale University School of Public Health. "For example, in some parts of the state, judges refused to send defendants with opioid addiction to methadone programs. This dramatically reduced the success of the drug courts in these parts of the state compared to parts of the state where judges referred people to the one proven medically effective form of treatment for their addiction."

Heimer's complaint about the rejection of methadone maintenance therapy was echoed on the other side of the Hudson River by upstate New York drug reformer Nicolas Eyle of Reconsider: Forum on Drug Policy. "Most, if not all, drug courts in New York abhor methadone and maintenance treatment in general," he noted. "This is troubling because the state's recent Rockefeller law reforms have a major focus on treatment in lieu of prison, suggesting that more and more hapless people will be forced to enter treatment they may not need or want. Then the judge decides what type of treatment they must have, and when they don't achieve the therapeutic goals set for them they'll be hauled off to serve their time."

Still, said Heimer, "Such courts can work if appropriate treatment options are available, but if the treatment programs are bad, then it is unlikely that courts will work. In such cases, if the only alternative is then incarceration, there is little reason for drug courts. If drug court personnel think their program is valuable, they should be consistently lobbying for better drug treatment in their community. If they are not doing this, then they are contributing to the circumstances of their own failure, and again, the drug user becomes the victim if the drug court personnel are not doing this."

Even within the coerced treatment model, there are more effective approaches than drug courts, said Naidoo. "Drug courts basically have a zero tolerance policy, and many judges just don't understand addiction as a chronic relapsing condition, so if there is a failed drug test, the court comes in with a hammer imposing a whole series of sanctions. A more effective model would be to look at the overall context," she argued. "If the guy has a dirty urine, but has found a job, has gotten housing, and is reunited with his family, maybe he shouldn't be punished for the relapse. The drug court would punish him."

Other harm reductionists were just plain cynical about drug courts. "I guess they work in reducing the drug-related harm of going to prison by keeping people out of prison -- except when they're sending people to prison," said Delaney Ellison, a veteran Michigan harm reductionist and activist. "And that's exactly what drug courts do if you're resistant to treatment or broke. Poor, minority people can't afford to complete a time-consuming drug court regime. If a participant finds he can't pay the fines, go to four hours a day of outpatient treatment, and pay rent and buy food while trapped in the system, he finds a way to prioritize and abandons the drug court."

An adequate health care system that provided treatment on demand is what is needed, Ellison said. "And most importantly, when are we going to stop letting cops and lawyers -- and this includes judges -- regulate drugs?" he asked. "These people don't know anything about pharmacology. When do we lobby to let doctors and pharmacists regulate drugs?"

Drug courts are also under attack on the grounds they deny due process rights to defendants. In Maryland, the state's public defender last week argued that drug courts were unconstitutional, complaining that judges should not be allowed to send someone to jail repeatedly without a full judicial hearing.

"There is no due process in drug treatment court," Public Defender Nancy Foster told the Maryland Court of Appeals in a case that is yet to be decided.

Foster's argument aroused some interest from the appeals court judges. One of them, Judge Joseph Murphy, noted that a judge talking to one party in a case without the other party being present, which sometimes happens in drug courts, has raised due process concerns in other criminal proceedings. "Can you do that without violating the defendant's rights?" he asked.

A leading advocate of the position that drug courts interfere with due process rights is Williams College sociologist James Nolan. In an interview last year, Nolan summarized his problem with drug courts. "My concern is that if we make the law so concerned with being therapeutic, you forget about notions of justice such as proportionality of punishment, due process and the protection of individual rights," Nolan said. "Even though problem-solving advocates wouldn't want to do away with these things, they tend to fade into the background in terms of importance."

In that interview, Nolan cited a Miami-Dade County drug court participant forced to remain in the program for seven years. "So here, the goal is not about justice," he said. "The goal is to make someone well, and the consequences can be unjust because they are getting more of a punishment than they deserve."

Deutsch said he was "hesitant" to comment on criticisms of the drug court model, "but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to keeping drug addicted offenders out of the criminal justice system and in treatment, drug courts are the best option available."

For the Sentencing Project's King, drug courts are a step up from the depths of the punitive prohibitionist approach, but not much of one. "With the drug courts, we're in a better place now than we were 20 years ago, but it's not the place we want to be 20 years from now," he said. "The idea that somebody needs to enter the criminal justice system to access public drug treatment is a real tragedy."

Press Release: FAMM Cheers Passage of Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Families Against Mandatory Minimums logo

 

 

Press Release: April 3, 2009                                       
Contact: media@famm.org                                                                                          

 

FAMM Cheers Passage of Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Changes Further "Smart on Crime" Sentencing Trend

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national advocacy organization dedicated to reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws, today applauds New York state leaders responsible for approving legislation that substantially overhauls and reforms New York's Rockefeller drug laws, once the toughest in the nation. FAMM also congratulates the efforts of families, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and advocates who made these changes possible.

The agreement, included as part of the New York budget bill, now awaits Governor David Paterson's signature.  It will restore judicial discretion in many drug cases, expand drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and provide retroactive sentencing relief for people serving prison time for low-level drug offenses.  It also allows approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing and increases penalties for "drug kingpins" and adults who sell drugs to young people.

Deborah Fleischaker, director of state legislative affairs of FAMM, issued the following statement in response to today's news:

"New York's decision to eliminate its draconian Rockefeller laws marks a step toward policies that are both tough and smart on crime. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are a driving force in skyrocketing prison populations.  Many states and the federal government followed New York's lead and enacted mandatory minimums in the 1970s and 1980s, believing these "one-size-fits-all" sentences would dry up the drug supply and eliminate drug addiction.  Sadly, mandatory minimums in New York and elsewhere have the opposite effect, filling our prisons with drug addicts instead of drug kingpins, and causing the erosion of faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system because of severe racial disparities caused by these laws.

Being tough on crime is not enough.  States must figure out how to protect public safety, without wasting thousands of lives and millions of dollars.  By repealing the Rockefeller drug laws, New York has just taken an enormous step toward finding that balance.

New York has joined the growing wave of states that recognize the harm caused by mandatory minimum sentencing.  From Michigan's elimination of most of its drug mandatory minimum laws, to Nevada's decision to repeal mandatory sentencing enhancements, to Pennsylvania's decision to have its Sentencing Commission study the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences, states are waking to the idea that mandatory minimum sentences lead to bloated budgets, fail to protect public safety, and are bad criminal justice policy.

Contrary to the claims of those who oppose these reforms, removing the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is not "soft on crime."  Politicians need to concern themselves with crafting smart criminal justice policies, instead of settling for the expensive and unworkable status quo.  The New York reforms, though long overdue, are good news for New Yorkers and the rest of the nation.  A recent report by Pew Center on the States shows why.   One in 31 Americans are under some form of criminal justice control - in prison, on probation or on parole - and one in 100 are in prison or jail.  The cost of this overreliance on corrections is staggering - last year it was the fastest expanding major segment of state budgets, and over the past two decades, its growth as a share of state expenditures has been second only to Medicaid. State corrections costs now top $50 billion annually and consume one in every 15 discretionary dollars."

Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety. For more information on FAMM, visit www.famm.org or contact Monica Pratt Raffanel at media@famm.org.

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Sentences that Fit. Justice that Works.
Location: 
NY
United States

Press Release: State Legislature Passes Historic Drug Law Reforms

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 2, 2009 CONTACT: Jennifer Carnig, 845.553.0349 / 212.607.3363 / jcarnig@nyclu.org State Legislature Passes Historic Drug Law Reforms April 2, 2009 -- The New York Civil Liberties Union today applauded the State Legislature for passing historic reforms to New York State’s notoriously harsh and ineffective mandatory minimum drug sentencing scheme. “These reforms are a major step toward ending a disastrous policy that has ruined lives, torn apart families and caused enormous racial inequities,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Substance abuse is both a public health and a law enforcement issue and today, after 36 long years, New York will finally start treating it that way.” Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though the laws are intended to target drug kingpins, most sentenced under them are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Most of the nearly 12,000 New Yorkers serving time for drug offenses have substance abuse problems; many others turned to drugs because of problems related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have sought to untie the hands of judges and allow substance abuse to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white. “Governor Paterson deserves an enormous amount of credit for his leadership in making good on his promise to New Yorkers to make drug law reform a priority,” Lieberman said. “He was a leader on this issue in the state senate and stayed true to his beliefs when he became governor and succeeded in working effectively with the assembly and the senate to make reform a reality.” The Rockefeller bill embraces two fundamental principles of reform: It eliminates mandatory minimum sentences, and significantly restores judges’ ability to order treatment and rehabilitation instead of incarceration. “These reforms do not eliminate irrationality and injustice from the drug sentencing laws, but it shifts New York’s failed drug policy away from mass incarceration and toward a public health model,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. “This is a historic occasion.” Once Governor Paterson signs the bill into law, it will: • Restore the authority of a judge to send individuals charged with drug offenses into substance abuse treatment rather than prison; • Expand in-prison treatment and re-entry services so that people who want and need help can access it; and • Allow for approximately 1,500 people serving excessive sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing. While these reforms represent a historic step forward in overhauling the drug laws, significant remnants of the Rockefeller Drug Law scheme remain in place. The NYCLU noted, for example, that the bill: • Permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses; • Disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and • Retains a weight-based sentencing scheme that will mandate a long prison sentence for people who should be eligible for treatment. “The bill restores an important measure of common sense and rationality to our drug laws,” Lieberman said. “But there is more work to be done in the future to restore fundamental justice and fairness to our criminal justice system.” - xxx -
Location: 
NY
United States

Canada: With Conservative Government Pushing Tough Crime Package, Liberal MP Responds With Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has introduced a crime and drugs package it had hoped to quickly push through Parliament, but with opposition, the Liberals stalling and the New Democratic Party (NDP) opposing, passage is starting to look much less certain. Meanwhile, a leading Liberal MP has introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession.

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Libby Davies
The pair of government bills, C-14 and C-15, would impose mandatory minimum sentences on some violent and gang crimes and on some drug crimes, respectively. The latter would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of one year for someone possessing as little as one marijuana plant, if that plant were to be determined to be destined for distribution.

The Conservatives are hoping to capitalize on a spate of highly-publicized, prohibition-related crimes of gang violence in the Vancouver area to push their agenda, but it is starting to look like the Liberals and NDP won't go along despite earlier indications they would not fight the Conservative package.

But last Friday, NDP Vancouver East MP Libby Davies lambasted C-15 during a lengthy parliamentary speech, and on Wednesday, Liberal Health Promotion critic Dr. Keith Martin, MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, BC, announced he would introduce a bill for the decriminalization of marijuana this week.

"The 'war on drugs' approach, characterized by zero tolerance, has been a complete failure," said Martin. "It has not reduced the rate of violent crime or drug use, nor has it saved money or lives. To realize meaningful change on our city streets, we must decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot. This will cause drug abuse to be addressed in the public health system, rather than through the courts. It will sever the connection between organized crime and drug users. This bill is bad news for criminal gangs because it would collapse the demand for drug product," Martin argued.

"In the medical profession our first principle is 'do no harm,'" Martin continued. "We are actually doing terrible harm if we continue to address substance abuse uniquely as a criminal issue from the federal level. The blinders have to come off; we have to take a medical perspective if we are going to turn this thing around."

That would be fine with MP Davies, who serves as the New Dems' drug policy critic. Citing statistics showing a large increase in the number of Canadians who reported having used illegal drugs in the past 15 years, Davies called prohibitionist policies "completely ineffective" and pointed to the US as a bad example. "We only have to look south of the border, where the so-called war on drugs has unleashed billions and billions of dollars and where we see massive numbers of people incarcerated, to see what a failure it is."

Citing successes with Canada's four pillar approach -- prevention, treatment, law enforcement, harm reduction -- Davies said the Conservative bill would be "a radical departure" and that the Conservatives were playing the politics of fear. There is no question that it is the core of the Conservative government's agenda around crime. It is about the political optics. I have called it the politics of fear."

Instead of responding with heavy-handed sentencing measures, why not go in a different direction, Davies asked. "We dealt with the marijuana decriminalization bill [when the Liberals were in power]. I know there are members in the House who were on the committee. We heard there were 600,000 Canadians who had a record for possession of marijuana. Why are we not at least beginning there and saying we will decriminalize and then legalize marijuana? We would begin at a place where there is strong public support. We should change the regime we have."

Davies also called out the Liberals to help defeat C-15. "I am very interested to see what the Liberal caucus does with this bill," she said. "I hope that we can defeat it. I hope we can say it is not the right way to go. The NDP does not think the bill should go through. It is not based on good public policy. It is going to be harmful and expensive. It is really time to embark on a common sense approach and accept the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has caused more death, pain, harm and crime than we can bear. It is time to stop it."

The mandatory minimum bills are now before the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee. No hearings or vote have yet been scheduled.

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- New York Rockefeller Drug Law Reform on the Verge of Passage

A week ago today, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) and state Assembly and Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement on reforming the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The agreement marked a partial retreat from the reforms envisioned in an Assembly bill passed earlier this year, but still offers a significant improvement over the status quo.

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long road to freedom: 2001 protest of Rockefeller drug laws, Albany (courtesy indymedia.org)
The measure was to have been voted on this week as part of the state's budget bill, but that hasn't happened yet, and that's making advocates nervous. While the consensus among advocates seems to be that the bill doesn't go far enough, most want to see it passed as a step in the right direction.

The Rockefeller drug laws were enacted in 1973 and mandate extremely tough prison sentences for the sale or possession of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although allegedly aimed at "drug kingpins," tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned under them, most of them low-level nonviolent offenders. Currently, some 12,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in New York, and they constitute one-fifth of the prison population. Nearly 90% of them are black or Hispanic.

Partial reforms in 2004 and 2005 did little to halt the imprisonment juggernaut. While providing some relief for some drug offenders, those reforms resulted in even more people being sent to prison on drug charges than before.

"While much more moderate than the reform bill passed by the Assembly last month, this proposal constitutes an important step forward in developing more effective drug policies based in public health and safety," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The legislature and governor should have made the proposal even more expansive, for instance by returning discretion to judges in every drug case, not only low-level cases. We believe, though, that this bill constitutes real reform, and should be enacted."

Under the tripartite agreement, the Rockefeller reform bill would:

  • Return judicial discretion in low-level drug law cases;
  • Expand treatment and reentry services;
  • Expand drug courts;
  • Allow for approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing;
  • Increase penalties for drug "kingpins";
  • Increase penalties on adults who sell drugs to young people.

In the reforms of 2004 and 2005, people serving A-level felonies -- the most serious -- were able to apply for resentencing, but not those serving B-level felonies, who constitute the bulk of Rockefeller prisoners. While the resentencing option would now be open for some 1,500 B-level offenders, that means that more than 10,000 New York drug war prisoners would remain without recourse.

The bill would also allow judges to divert some low-level drug offenders into drug treatment or other alternatives to imprisonment, but only if they convince judges they are addicts. Given that incarceration costs three times as much as treatment, the state stands to save millions if judges exercise that sentencing discretion.

"As a former prisoner under the Rockefeller drug laws, I support this legislation because it will rescue many of the prisoners who fell through the cracks of the prior reforms," said DPA's Anthony Papa. "This proposal will give people convicted of low-level drug offenses a chance to be reunited with their families and become productive tax paying citizens like myself."

"If this becomes law, it will be a big step forward," said Caitlin Dunklee of the Correctional Association of New York and coordinator of the Drop the Rock campaign. "This is the first major reform of the Rockefeller drug laws since their enactment. It dismantles mandatory minimum sentencing in a meaningful way. It also allocates money for alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment," she said.

But the package doesn't include everything reformers sought, Dunklee conceded. "It does leave intact some harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses and will lead to the incarceration of future low-level drug offenders -- about half of them will face mandatory minimums. Also, the retroactivity provisions are too limited; fewer than 1,500 of the more than 10,000 behind bars for drug offenses will be eligible to apply," she said. "We have family members asking when their loved ones are coming home, but very few are going to get out early."

"It's a lukewarm reform," said a disappointed Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Social Justice, long a key player in the Rockefeller repeal movement and now preparing to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer in next year's elections. "New York's criminal justice system needed a giant enema, and all the politicians did was pass gas."

"This proposal is a step forward," said Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York organization that works on alternatives to imprisonment. "It is in the tradition of modest reform coming on the heels of the 2004 and 2005 reforms," he said. "It captures some of the same features, allows some resentencing as those did, but still leaves us with a pretty overbearing structure, and although a lot of attention is paid to treatment versus punishment, it still leaves an awful lot of room for punishment and a lot of people stuck in prison. From my perspective, I would give kudos to the legislators who supported this, but would certainly give fair warning to the public that there is still a lot of work to be done."

Rosenthal pointed out that while the reform would allow judges to exercise discretion, that doesn't mean they will. "Most judges come from a prosecutorial background," he noted. "It's not likely that they have an enlightened view of how counterproductive and destructive prison can be. At this point, I don't think things are going to look much different from when the DAs had the discretion. This will be a tiny spigot, and those judges are going to be trying to figure out who is worthy and who is not, who might look more dangerous because of class, skin color, or ethnicity. That sort of potential for coloring judicial decisions leaves us still needing broader reform and a broader understanding of how to deal with these issues."

Whether such partial reforms should be supported is a thorny question, said Rosenthal. "It is difficult to sit there and know that a smaller percentage than we would like are going to benefit, but it's also difficult to say we're going to hold out for everything knowing that if we do, some people are going to suffer under the yoke of imprisonment," he said. "The downside is the public impression that all that needs to be done has been done. Those still left in prison and their family members who are not getting any relief will understand there is more work to do, but the problem will be our ability to blow air into the balloon of public concern."

Sayegh defended the partial reform as the best that could be achieved. "Our job as advocates is to fight like hell to get the most we can get done. We are committed to that. After a hundred years of prohibition and drug wars, anyone who thinks we can accomplish the extraordinary and impossible in one legislative package is dreaming. We need to make the impossible possible and the possible inevitable, and that implies a process. We are here for the long haul," he vowed.

It may be a long haul. "A lot of people I talk to who are not involved in drug policy have told me they thought this was taken care of in 2004 and 2005," said Nicolas Eyle of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy, an upstate drug reform group. "It will be the same thing again with this bill, but we still have long sentences, we have a kingpin proposal that sounds like it will fit your normal street corner drug crew, so we'll end up with these retail dealers doing 15-to-life. This bill is a step in the right direction, but it's only a baby step," he said.

Likening the Rockefeller repeal movement to the antebellum Abolitionist movement, Credico said the battle against slavery did not settle for half-measures. "The criminal justice system is the new slave power," he said, "and just like the Jim Crow laws, the drug laws will continue to be used to jail, convict, imprison, and disenfranchise people on a massive level. Everyone -- judges, DAs, defense attorneys, corrections officers, court officers, probation and parole officers, upstate politicians and contractors -- depends on these drug cases to stay busy and keep the prisons filled."

The coerced treatment provisions of the reform package are misguided, Credico said. "The drug reform community wants to use the false language of it's a health issue, but these people aren't sick addicts; they're dime bag desperados, the guys retailing on the street corners. Now, they're going to have to plead guilty and convince judges they're addicts," he argued. "If they can't prove they're addicts, they can still go to jail, and they'll be doing one to nine years. This at a time when we have black youth unemployment in the city at 65%. What else are they supposed to do?"

Like Credico, Dunklee was critical of the provision making only people who convince judges they are addicts eligible for diversion in B-level offenses. "This sets up a distinction between people addicted or not," she said, "and only people who are deemed substance dependent will be eligible for diversion. Those people who maybe don't need treatment, but could instead be helped in other ways will be facing mandatory minimum prison terms. We object strongly to that."

Addressing the increased sentences for "kingpins" and people who sell drugs to minors in the final bill, Dunklee said it was a sop to prosecutors. "Gov. Paterson wanted to avoid appearing soft on crime, so he endorsed sentencing enhancements for people the public demonizes," she said. "When the public hears about selling drugs to minors, they think about the guy in the trench coat in the school yard, not the 21-year-old selling to the 17-year-old. The judges will not be able to look at the circumstances of each case, and the young man will go to jail for a long time, but that's not what the public has in mind."

For Dunklee and Drop the Rock, the battle is not over. "We're not going out of business, we're going to keep the coalition intact," she said. "This partial reform has the potential to take the air out of the movement, but we are going to assess how to continue. Our people are committed to full repeal, and we are open to the possibility of broadening our agenda to include prison downsizing. We are going to be figuring out how to respond to the reforms and the new political climate," she said.

But, given that at this writing, the long-delayed final passage of the bill has not yet occurred and given that the Senate Democrats have a razor thin majority, this ex post facto analysis of the 2009 Rockefeller law reforms may be premature. "The bill hasn't passed yet," cautioned Sayegh. "Of course, they will pass a budget bill, but the question is what is going to be included in it. Right now, there are a number of legislators and prosecutors and rags like the Daily News putting out garbage. There is a lot of opposition to this provision, so we can't take its passage for granted. We're almost there, but we're not there yet," he said.

Press Release: Historic Reforms of New York's Draconian Drug Sentencing Scheme Imminent

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 31, 2009 CONTACT: Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363 / jcarnig@nyclu.org NYCLU: Historic Reforms of New York’s Draconian Drug Sentencing Scheme Imminent March 31, 2008 – In anticipation of the passage of the budget within the next 24 hours, the New York Civil Liberties Union today applauded the State Legislature for making significant reforms to New York State’s notoriously harsh and ineffective mandatory minimum drug sentencing scheme. “New York State is on the verge of a historic moment,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This bill does not eliminate the Rockefeller Drug Laws but it does provide for a new approach to substance abuse. Substance abuse is a public health issue and today, after 36 long years, New York is finally poised to treat it that way.” Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most sentenced under the laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Most of the nearly 12,000 New Yorkers serving time for drug offenses have substance abuse problems; many others turned to drugs because of problems related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have fought to untie the hands of judges and allow addiction to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white. The budget bill embraces two fundamental principles of reform: elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, and a significant restoration of the ability for judges to order treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration. “The proposed reform, if adopted, will not eliminate irrationality and injustice from the drug sentencing laws, but it shifts New York’s failed drug policy away from mass incarceration and toward a public health model,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. The bill: • Restores the authority of a judge to send individuals charged with drug offenses into substance abuse treatment rather than prison; • Expands in-prison treatment and re-entry services so that people who want and need help can access it; and • Allows for approximately 1,500 people serving excessive sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing. The NYCLU took pains, however, to make clear that while the bill represents an important step in overhauling the drug laws, it does not fully realize the reform principles on which the legislation is based. Significant remnants of the Rockefeller Drug Law scheme remain in place. The NYCLU noted, for example, that the bill: • Leaves in place a sentencing scheme that permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses; • Disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and • Retains a weight-based sentencing scheme, which will lead to a long mandatory prison sentence for someone who has a few grams more of a substance than someone who is eligible for treatment. “To hear the protests of the district attorney’s lobby, one would think that the legislature is proposing radical reform,” Lieberman said. “It is not. The bill restores an important measure of common sense and rationality to our drug laws. But there is more work to be done to restore fundamental justice and fairness.” - xxx -
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Press Release: Details of Rockefeller Reform Proposal Released

For Immediate Release: March 30, 2009 For More Info: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646) 335-2264 Proposal to Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws Included in NYS Budget Package, Vote Expected Tomorrow Bill Restores Judicial Discretion, Expands Drug Treatment, and Reforms Sentences for Low-Level, Nonviolent Drug Offenses Advocates: A Good First Step Towards Developing a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs in New York ALBANY- Over the weekend, New York Governor David Paterson, the Senate and the Assembly concluded negotiations on Rockefeller Drug Law reform. The bill is part of the state budget proposed by lawmakers, which is expected to be voted on this week. The bill outlines broad reforms to the long-failed Rockefeller Drug Laws, including restoring judicial discretion in most low-level drug cases, expanding drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of low-level nonviolent offenses, and increasing penalties for drug kingpins and adults who sell drugs to young people. “While much more moderate than the reform bill passed by the Assembly last month, this proposal constitutes an important step forward in developing more effective drug policies based in public health and safety,” said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Legislature and Governor should have made the proposal even more expansive, for instance by returning discretion to judges in every drug case, not only low-level cases. We believe, though, that this bill constitutes real reform, and should be enacted.” Details of the proposal include: * Returns judicial discretion low-level drug law cases * Expands treatment and re-entry services * Expands drug courts * Allows for approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing * Increases penalties for drug kingpins * Increases penalties on adults who sell drugs to young people The bill would allow certain people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply to the court for resentencing. The reforms of 2004 and 2005, enacted by a Democratic Assembly, Republican Senate and Republican Governor, allowed those person’s serving A-level felonies—the most serious felony level—apply for resentencing. But those reforms did not allow the vast majority of people incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws—those imprisoned for lower-level offenses--to be resentenced under the fairer system. The bill presented by the Legislature and Governor seeks to remedy this problem. The proposal would also allow judges to send those convicted of low-level drug law offenses into drug treatment or other alternatives to incarceration. The move could save New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Incarceration costs approximately $45,000 per year, while treatment and alternatives to incarceration cost $15,000 or less, and are far more effective at reducing recidivism and criminal activity. “As a former prisoner under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, I support this legislation because it will rescue many of the prisoners who fell through the cracks of the prior reforms,” said Anthony Papa, of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This proposal will give people convicted of low-level drug offenses a chance to be reunited with their families and become productive tax paying citizens like myself.” Earlier this month, the Assembly passed more significant reform legislation which started the negotiations for reform. Assembly bill 6085, sponsored by long-time reform champion Assemblyman Jeff Aubry (D-Queens), chairman of the Corrections Committee and Speaker Silver, was even more comprehensive than the proposal included in the budget today. Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), chairman of the Codes Committee, introduced similar legislation in the Senate, but that bill was never passed. An agreement of a meaningful compromise between he Governor, the Senate and the Assembly was announced at the Capitol last Friday. 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 (kingpins), 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, and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Nearly 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, representing some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. “This proposal isn’t as expansive as it should be, but it represents significant and long-overdue reforms,” said Sayegh. “For years advocates have fought for reforms to these failed laws. Now, after weeks of negotiations between the Legislature and Governor, we’re one vote away from real, meaningful reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
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Press Release: NYCLU -- Rockefeller Bill a Major Step Forward

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 29, 2009 CONTACT: Jennifer Carnig, 845.553.0349 / 212.607.3363 / jcarnig@nyclu.org NYCLU: Rockefeller Bill a Major Step Forward March 29, 2009 -- The bill to reform New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws is finally complete – finalized late Saturday night – and the New York Civil Liberties Union today applauded the historic agreement. “After 36 years of gross injustice, we are finally on the verge of significant reform to these ineffective, cruel laws,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The bill that the governor, senate and assembly agreed to does not repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but if it passes it will be a major step toward justice in New York.” The final bill embraces – for the first time and in a meaningful way – two important principles of reform: It includes an elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, and it includes a restoration of judges’ authority to send many drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail. The reform bill comes to a vote on Tuesday. Its passage is not guaranteed, Lieberman warned, and the possibility exists for the addition of amendments that would torpedo the essential gains made in the draft legislation. “It’s more important than ever for advocates, activists and everyday New Yorkers to call their elected officials,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “This bill is an important step toward safer, healthier communities. We need to urge our leaders to support it.”
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