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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.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/2001rockefellerprotest.jpg
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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Legislative Deal Made on Rockefeller Drug Laws

In yesterday's Drug War Chronicle we reported that a deal seemed to be near for reform of New York State's infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws -- reform that appeared likely to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for many (though not all) of the state's drug defendants while allowing current Rockefeller prisoners to apply for commutations. The deal now reportedly has been reached. Click here for the latest from the New York Times, and here for the NYT archive on the topic. Tony Papa sent out the link for the following NYPost.com video about it too: The legislation is not perfect, and it doesn't help everybody -- check back for details -- but we are optimistic that this will help a lot of people and that we are at an historical turning point in the issue.

Press Release: NYCLU Applauds Pledge to Reform Rock Drug Laws, but Cautions to Wait for Details

CONTACT:

Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363 / jcarnig@nyclu.org

NYCLU Applauds Pledge to Reform Rock Drug Laws, but Cautions to Wait for Details

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 27, 2009 – The New York Civil Liberties Union applauded the pledge made today by the governor, senate and assembly to reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, but cautioned that the essential details of the agreement have yet to be revealed. What has been outlined so far reflects a significant shift in policy and an important agreement in principle, but significant details have yet to be worked out.

“What Governor Paterson, Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Smith committed to today is a new approach to dealing with drug offenses. After 36 years of locking up people who suffer from addiction and mental illness, this is an exciting step,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The leaders of our state have finally recognized that the revolving door of lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key does not work. It has failed to make us safer and it has devastated communities. But the devil is in the details. We cannot celebrate reform of our state’s discriminatory, ineffective drug laws until we know the details.”

The agreement appears to embrace – for the first time and in a meaningful way – two important principles of reform: It includes a reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and it includes a restoration of judges’ authority to send many drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail.

“We have a commitment to the principles of reform,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “But the real story is that this thing isn’t done yet. Our political leaders are trying hard to reach agreement on the details of a reform bill, but they haven’t done that yet. It’s really important that we all pay attention to the details that unfold in the coming days. The details could be the difference between meaningful reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and more of the same.”

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 trapped by the laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison suffer from substance abuse problems or issues 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.

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Press Release: Albany Agreement a Step Toward Dismantling Rockefeller, but Not a Done Deal and Not Repeal

CONTACT:

Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363 / jcarnig@nyclu.org

NYCLU: Albany Agreement a Step Toward Dismantling Rockefeller, but Not a Done Deal and Not Repeal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 26, 2009 – The deal reached in principle late last night between Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders could be an important step toward dismantling New York State’s draconian drug laws, said the leadership of the New York Civil Liberties Union. But what has been outlined so far is only an agreement in principle – not law – and it does not fully repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Substance abuse is a public health issue,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “For 36 years, New York State has been locking up people who suffer from addiction and mental illness – but that didn’t make us safer, remove drugs from the streets or serve the interests of our communities. Letting go of this backwards, ineffective approach and looking toward new ways to promote public health and public safety is an important step in the right direction, but it is just that – a step.”

The agreement appears to embrace – for the first time and in a meaningful way – two important principles of reform: It includes a significant reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and it includes a significant restoration of the ability for judges to send drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail.

“The intention of this agreement is a fundamental shift of public policy on drug abuse, away from mandatory incarceration and toward a public health approach,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “That said, the proposal leaves in place some significant elements of the Rockefeller scheme. Extremely harsh sentences still exist. And there is still a mandatory minimum sentence for low-level, nonviolent repeat offenders – the very people who may need treatment and rehabilitation the most.”

Though there appears to be a conceptual agreement on many Rockefeller issues, the details are yet to be drafted. Still to be resolved is the definition of substance abuse and dependency. Also under negotiation are the procedures by which eligibility for treatment is determined. These details are significant because the wrong result could undermine the whole effort.

“While we’re hopeful about the direction our state is heading in terms of drug laws, this is a complex issue and draft legislation has not been made public,” Lieberman said. “And most importantly, the question of implementation remains. New York appears to be poised to embrace a public health approach, but the devil is in the details and we don’t know the details yet.”

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 trapped by the laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison suffer from substance abuse problems or issues 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.

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Sentencing: Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Deal Near, NY Times Says

The New York Times reported Thursday that a tentative agreement, on principle, to reform New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws had been reached by Gov. David Paterson (D) and the state legislature. The state Senate has already passed its version of Rockefeller law reform; what remains to be done is to reach agreement with Paterson and Senate leaders, as well as wooing back Senate members if the final bill diverges too far from what they passed.

But it isn't a done deal yet, and reform leaders qualify their attitude as "cautiously optimistic" and holding firm for real reform. The devil is the details, they noted.

"This agreement is a good sign that progress is being made to enact real reform, but it is not final, and meaningful reform will be determined by the details," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The final deal must include the core components of meaningful reform: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases including 2nd time offenses, sentencing reform, expansion of community drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and retroactive sentencing relief for those serving unjust, long sentences for low-level offenses."

Under the tentative agreement, judges would have considerable discretion in sentencing restored. They would be able to divert first-time nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison for all but the most serious drug offenses. Judges are currently bound by mandatory minimum sentences in the Rockefeller laws to send to prison people convicted of possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Judges would also have the ability to send some repeat offenders to treatment, but only if they were found to be drug dependent.

The agreement does not represent repeal of the laws, but rather reform, and comes on the heels of a spirited protest outside of Gov. Paterson's New York City office yesterday where more than two hundred people, including Russell Simmons and Reverend Calvin Butts, called on the governor to keep his word and reform the laws. Another demonstration to pressure the politicians was set for today.

"I stood with the governor in 2002 when he was arrested protesting these laws, so I know he believes in meaningful reform," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. "The deal has to be done, and done right. New York's experiment with this criminal justice approach has failed. It's time for the governor and Legislative leaders to take the first step toward a public health and safety approach to drugs."

Not everybody is happy about the presumptive deal. State district attorneys have fought hard to retain effective control over sentencing. Under current law with its mandatory minimums, prosecutors' charging decisions rather than judges' discretion effectively set sentences, and they want to keep that power. On the other side of the equation, some veteran reform activists are denouncing anything short of full repeal as a sell-out.

Stay tuned.

Press Release: Hundreds Rally at Governor's NYC Office, Demand End of Rockefeller Drug Laws

CONTACT:

Drop the Rock, Caitlin Dunklee: 646.269.7344

New York Civil Liberties Union: Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363

Drug Policy Alliance: Tony Newman, 646.335.5384

Hundreds Rally at Governor’s NYC Office, Demand End of Rockefeller Drug Laws

March 25, 2009 – Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied today in front of Gov. David Paterson’s Manhattan office, urging the governor and legislative leaders to enact a sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state’s infamous mandatory-minimum drug sentencing scheme.

Speakers – including hip hop mogul and reform advocate Russell Simmons and the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church – called on lawmakers to seize this historic opportunity to end the unjust and ineffective laws.

“New York’s drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow Laws of the 21st Century,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities. Governor Paterson and our legislative leaders must finally put an end to this endless cycle of failure and injustice.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated are convicted of low-level offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison under the Rockefeller laws suffer from substance abuse problems; many others struggle with issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. About 90 percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white.

“Today we stand at the doorstep of change, and we call on the governor, the state assembly leader and the senate majority leader to fulfill their promise to make that change to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all,” Simmons said. “We have all been working hard for too many years to not restore full judicial discretion and give judges the option to send people with addictions to treatment rather than prison. The hip-hop community will continue to seek the change that we all know is right.”

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state’s drug sentencing scheme remains intact. These laws deny judges the authority to place people suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness into treatment programs.

“For 36 years, New York State has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by allowing the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws to serve as a stimulus package for rural upstate prison communities,” said Glenn Martin, vice president of The Fortune Society. “No longer can we continue to lock up drug addicted people from poor urban communities, simply because policy makers lack a vision for upstate economic development.”

In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting the sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki.

“Seven years ago, David Paterson, then a State Senator from Harlem, was handcuffed in an act of civil disobedience aimed at pressing Governor Pataki to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws.  Five years ago, as Senate Minority Leader, he proposed sweeping changes to the harsh statutes” says Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Drop the Rock Campaign. “Now, as Governor, his constituents are rallying to urge him to exercise the leadership he was once known for.”

“We are here to remind Governor Paterson of his past promises and to urge him to return to his better political self,” state Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association.  “His record tells us that he’s fully aware of these laws’ harsh effects, that they are wasteful, ineffective, and marked by a stark racial bias.  It is time for him as governor to exercise leadership in removing the stain of these notorious statutes from New York’s penal code.”

“In 2002, Gov. Paterson stood by my side as a senator from Harlem New York and spoke bravely about changing the laws that heavily affected his constituency,” said Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance and former prisoner under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “Now as governor he has the power to transform those words into action that will finally achieve meaningful reform.”

“For 36 years, the Rockefeller Drug Laws have filled our prisons, emptied the taxpayer’s pockets and have had no effect whatsoever on New York State’s drug use, especially in communities of color, except to turn young people into recidivist felons,” said George Bethos, leader of NYC AIDS Housing Network & Voices Of Community Advocates And Leaders (VOCAL). “Repeal these laws immediately or have society continue to pay the price.”

“We want to see the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted each year on criminalizing chemical dependency in poor urban areas reinvested in those very same communities targeted by these laws,” said Kym Clark, director of FREE! Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment. “We need livable wage jobs, educational resources, and access to health care, for starters.”

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Location: 
New York, NY
United States

Rally to end New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws

Hundreds of people, including the families of those in prison for drug offenses, people who were formerly incarcerated, doctors, lawyers and advocates, will rally at Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office to urge him and legislative leaders to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh sentences for sale or possession of small amounts of drugs. Most of the thousands of people incarcerated under Rockefeller are low-level drug offenders, and most come from just a handful of low-income New York City neighborhoods. Ninety percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white. In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting a proposed overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki. Now hundreds of people will gather outside his office to demand an end to the outdated, discriminatory laws.
Date: 
Wed, 03/25/2009 - 1:00pm
Location: 
633 3rd Ave. (between 40th and 41st)
New York, NY
United States

Drug War Issues

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