New York Assembly Speaker Says No to Rockefeller Drug Law Reform...Or Does He? 5/28/99

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For years, Democratic lawmakers in New York State have sought the repeal of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws, some of the harshest mandatory minimum laws in the US. Recently, bipartisan support for reform has grown, culminating this month in a proposal by Republican Governor George Pataki calling for modest reductions in the laws. But late last week, the New York Times reported that the Democratic leadership in the Assembly would not consider any proposals to scale back the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the current session. Citing concerns about appearing soft on crime, an aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said there were "no plans by the Assembly leadership to address the governor's proposal."

Reform advocates were shocked at the news. "Most of the people I've spoken to have people who are incarcerated, and their hearts just sank when they heard the news," said Terri Derikart, director of the New York chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "They felt like they had been betrayed by their elected officials."

Assemblyman Silver's office did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment on the story, but an article in the Albany Times Union today suggests that the Speaker may have softened his stance somewhat after fellow Democrats expressed their dismay. On Thursday (5/27) the Times Union reported that Silver told a closed-door Democratic conference that he opposed only Governor Pataki's plan, though he did not say what other proposals, if any, he does support.

While reform advocates consider the governor's plan a positive step toward reforming the laws -- Pataki is the first governor to formally propose a change in the laws since they were enacted under Governeor Nelson D. Rockefeller in 1973 -- most have criticized it as not going far enough. Currently, even non-violent, first-time offenders charged with selling two or more ounces or possessing four or more ounces of a drug face fifteen years to life in prison. Pataki's plan would reduce the minimum sentence by just five years, subject to approval by an appeals judge, and in return for this concession the governor wants to severely limit parole for all offenders.

Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund, which organizes protests and vigils in support of Rockefeller Drug Law repeal, said Pataki's proposal was an acknowledgment of the strength of the reform movement. "He's hoping to snuff out a popular uprising," he told The Week Online. "He's trying to cramp the growing grassroots movement, what you'd call a ground war, which is what is really required to change these laws." That movement rejects Pataki's proposal, which, Credico said, "would take New York from being the state with the worst drug laws to being the state with the worst drug laws."

Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that something must be done. Adding to the momentum for repeal are a number of reports documenting the effects of the laws on the state's overburdened prison system and their disparate impact on Black and Latino New Yorkers. Among the facts:

  • Drug offenders now make up roughly one third of the state's 70,000 inmates.
  • In 1998, 46% of the nearly 6,000 drug offenders sentenced to prison in New York were convicted of drug possession, not sales.
  • At the current level of incarceration, drug offenders in New York prisons cost taxpayers $715 million dollars per year.
  • In 1997, 77.5% of drug offenders in New York had no prior convictions for violent felonies, and 50% had no prior felony drug convictions.
  • More than 94% of drug offenders in New York prisons are Black or Latino.
(source: New York Correctional Association fact sheet)

Numbers like these have prompted calls for reform from diverse quarters, including New York's Chief Judge, Judith Kaye, who earlier this year proposed a plan similar to Pataki's. This spring, Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry introduced a more radical bill that would repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws by returning discretion to sentencing judges, and increase funding for drug treatment programs. The bill also includes a clause that would allow current inmates to have their sentences reduced.

There are also several proposals from a range of advocacy groups that have not yet been introduced in the Assembly, many more conservative than Aubry's, but still substantial enough to mitigate the worst excesses of the Rockefeller laws. The issue seems "hot," which is why the claim from Speaker Silver's office that the Democratic leadership is worried about looking too soft on crime sounded odd to many.

"In New York, I don't see how anybody needs any political cover beyond the Governor stepping forward and saying something has to be done, the chief judge of the state saying something has to be done," said John Dunne, a former Republican state senator who, along with the bipartisan Campaign For Effective Criminal Justice, wants the law changed to double the amount of drugs required to constitute each level of crime. "There are plenty of people to share the blame as well as the glory for any change that might be made."

The public seems to share that opinion. In a Zogby International poll conducted at the end of April, 63% of New Yorkers surveyed said they would not consider a politician who voted for reducing mandatory drug sentences "soft on crime." And nearly 30% of the respondents said that they favored giving judges more discretion to decide on sentencing in individual cases. An overwhelming majority (73.8%) said they favor treatment over jail for minor drug offenders.

If more cover were needed, Silver may be relieved to hear that even the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute also favors Rockefeller reform, and is expected to publish a report to that effect in early June, penned by the notoriously prison-friendly John DiIulio.

Given all this, there is still a good deal of hope among reform advocates that there will be movement on the laws this year. Robert Gangi, director of the New York Correctional Association, a prison watchdog group, told The Week Online, "It's clear from the polls and from our political sense, based on newspaper stories and editorial board comments, that we've won the public debate." Gangi said his group will move ahead with plans for a lobbying day in Albany next month.

Terri Derikart said that FAMM and the other activists she works with will not take no for an answer. "They are already contacting their legislators," she said. "They want meaningful drug law reform to be passed this session. They don't agree that it's going to be shelved. They want to keep everything to keep moving. So rather than accepting it, they're raising their voices across the state to say, 'this is wrong, we need these laws reformed now, not just for our family members, but for those who are about to be incarcerated.'"

Learn more about the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the movement to reform them at these web sites: