New York Republican Gov. George Pataki used his seventh annual State of the State address to promise "to dramatically reform New York's Rockefeller drug laws."
"Today, we can conclude that, however well intentioned, key aspects of those laws are out of step with both the times and the complexities of drug addiction,” Pataki told the state's assembled legislators. But the governor was short on specifics. He said his proposals would be unveiled in "coming weeks."
As he spoke inside the state capitol, more than a hundred people demonstrated outside to demand an end to the Rockefeller laws. Friends and relatives of New York drug prisoners were joined by prominent critics of the drug war, including Frank Serpico, Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis, Margie Ratner Kunstler, and Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights, for a morning vigil and afternoon press conference.
According to Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (http://www.kunstler.org), one of the event's organizers, the Albany demo was "one of our finest hours."
"We've done hundreds of these vigils, but this was the best. We had mothers who lost kids, kids who lost their mothers, it was like the Nuremburg Tribunal, with the witnesses putting the government on trial," Credico told DRCNet. "To hear these families come up and courageously tell their stories was extremely powerful, and the legislators saw it and the media saw it. We're in every paper in the state today," he crowed.
The Rockefeller laws, among the nation's harshest, were enacted in the 1970s. They were a model for the punitive approach to drug policy that swept the nation in the 1980s, but which is fraying around the edges today. Under the Rockefeller laws, someone convicted of a single sale of as little as two ounces of an illicit drug can face 15 years to life. So can anyone convicted of possessing as little as four ounces. According to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, more than 21,000 people are doing time on drug charges, out of a total of 70,000 state prisoners. Some 600 of them are serving those 15-years-to-life sentences.
Pataki has supported only limited reform efforts in the past -- he got behind a measure to allow a small group of nonviolent offenders to ask for 10 years instead of 15 -- but has signaled his discomfort with the laws' inequities by giving Christmas commutations to 23 people since he took office in 1995, including five last month.
Pressure to lessen the Rockefeller sentences has been mounting for years. Critics include even the nation's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has called them too harsh. In an August, 1999 speech in Albany, McCaffrey said, "Even those who helped pass the Rockefeller-era laws now have serious concerns that these laws have caused thousands of low-level and first-time offenders to be incarcerated at high cost for long sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes."
But moves in the legislature to ameliorate the Rockefeller laws have failed in recent sessions, the victim of partisan bickering and fear of appearing "soft on crime." In recent months, however, key legislators have indicated they were ready to support reform. After long opposing such a move, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last fall said he was prepared to look at easing sentencing laws. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno supported some reform measures last session.
Their support may be guided as much by budgetary concerns as by altruism. In a May report, the Citizens Budget Commission, a well-respected, nonpartisan watchdog group, said New York could save nearly $100 million annually from its prison budget and improve public safety if it eliminated "unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive imprisonment" (http://www.cbcny.org/DOCS52000.htm).
Advocates of Rockefeller law reform are pleased, but cautious.
The Kunstler Fund's Credico told DRCNet he was only somewhat encouraged. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "Pataki is doing smart politics. He's running for reelection and he knows this is blossoming into a huge issue across the country. If he follows through, he'll be untouchable as a governor."
But both Credico and Nicholas Eyle of ReconsiDer (http://www.reconsider.org), a New York-based grassroots drug policy reform group, caution that much remains to be clarified.
"The problem is that there are several bills floating around," Eyle told DRCNet. "One would basically get rid of the Rockefeller laws, but I'm afraid it will be portrayed as the extreme position and we'll end up with some halfway measures."
"We haven't even seen what Pataki is going to propose," added Eyle, "and let's not forget that he also wants to do away with parole for felony offenders. It seems as if he's heading in two directions at once."
Credico, too, voiced concern about just what reforms would occur. "We need more than a lessening of the 15-to-life provisions and we need to block the no parole stuff. Parole works."
Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York, largely concurred with Credico and Eyle. "We are encouraged, but not complacent," he told DRCNet. "Pataki made a very strong statement, and it will be hard for him to backtrack."
"But he offered no specifics, and the devil is in the details," Gangi continued. "We have to see if his proposals constitute meaningful reform, and we'll be looking at three things: first, restoring sentencing discretion to judges in drug cases, including the threshold decision of whether to incarcerate or not; second, retroactivity; and third, increased funding for alternate sentences including rehab and treatment, so judges have real options."
Eyle worries that so-called reforms will only end up expanding the reach of an intrusive state. "I'm afraid they'll come up with something only slightly better, say it's all fixed, and then concentrate on forcing people into treatment, which seems to be their new angle," he said.
"But you can't just tweak this system to make it better," Eyle argued. "The problem is prohibition. Prohibition doesn't work, you have to eliminate it."
Both Credico and Eyle pointed to the role of race as well. "Black leaders think reforming the laws will have some effect," Eyle said, "but minorities will continue to be arrested in disproportionate numbers."
Credico said that African-American political leaders and clergy in the state have been slow to come on board. "Folks like Calvin Butts and Floyd Flake haven't taken the lead. Sure, they're concerned about drugs in their neighborhoods, but what about all of those people in prison?"
Impassioned, Credico continued: "When people understand the kind of violence the government has perpetrated against its fellow Americans in the name of the drug war, when they see the pain and suffering, they don't want that. If people knew what went on behind prison walls, they wouldn't support that either. This is a brutal, hidden prison system, and its director, Glenn Goord, should be indicted for crimes against humanity."
And Credico had a warning for Gov. Pataki and the legislature. "I got tons of calls from prisoners last night after the governor spoke," he told DRCNet. "He can't renege on this now or those prisons will explode."