Hip Hop empresario Russell
Simmons is getting a rapid education in the politics of drug reform in
New York, but perhaps not rapid enough. Simmons, whose Hip Hop Action
Summit network has sought to mobilize the energy of the hip hop nation
for positive political change, played a key role in creating mass protests
against New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws in June and managed
to insert himself into negotiations over competing versions of Rockefeller
law reform in the days that followed. Those negotiations faltered,
however, and this week Simmons announced that he had signed on to a new
reform proposal from Gov. George Pataki (R). Problem is, in so doing,
Simmons has managed to alienate the constituencies that have worked for
years to obtain meaningful reform or outright repeal of those laws -- not
Under the Rockefeller drug
laws, named for former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who instigated them in
the early 1970s, the possession of even relatively small amounts of hard
drugs can lead to prison sentences of 15 years to life. New York
prisons are stuffed to the rafters with some 19,000 small-time, usually
black or Latino, drug offenders serving Rockefeller law sentences.
For the past two years, Gov. Pataki, the Democratic-led State Assembly,
and a growing coalition of pro-reform or pro-repeal groups have been entangled
in a so far fruitless effort to reach a workable compromise. The
primary issues in the way have been the degree of sentence reductions,
funding for drug treatment, and the demand by prosecutors, backed by state
Republican legislators, that they continue to wield power over sentencing
decisions instead of judges.
Monday night, Gov. Pataki
announced his new proposal, highlighting the following provisions:
"There is general consensus
that the Rockefeller drug law sentences are in need of reform," Governor
Pataki said in a press release announcing the new proposal. "This
legislation corrects the portions of the laws that are widely agreed to
be too harsh and should be overhauled. Through this proposal, hundreds
of nonviolent drug offenders currently serving unduly long sentences could
be reunited immediately with their families and thousands of other nonviolent
offenders in prison could have their sentences reduced as well."
Nearly 80% of drug offenders
sentenced to prison annually would be eligible for a shorter sentence (approximately
5,400 drug offenders out of approximately 6,800 sentenced to prison annually
based on 2002 admissions).
Class A-I, first-time drug offenders
would receive a 50% reduction in minimum sentences, from 15 years to 8
years. With earned good time and merit time, offenders could be eligible
for work release after serving 3.7 years in prison. Over 90% of Class
A-I drug offenders sentenced to prison over the last 5 years were nonviolent,
All other nonviolent drug offenders
would be eligible for sentencing reductions as well. For example,
the minimum amount of prison time for a Class B, nonviolent drug felon
will be reduced by 45% from 3.8 years (with merit time allowance) to 2.1
years. 70% of Class B predicate felons sentenced to prison within
the last 5 years had no prior violent felony conviction.
The weights would double for
certain controlled substances. 63% of Class A-I drug offenders sentenced
to prison over the last five years and 58% of Class A-II drug offenders
sentenced to prison over that time period were committed on drug possession
All nonviolent Class A-I drug
offenders could apply for re-sentencing. Approximately 90% of drug
offenders serving life sentences for Class A-I drug convictions could be
eligible for retroactive re-sentencing. Of the approximately 550
Class A-I drug offenders under custody, 370 (67%) could be eligible for
immediate release if sentenced to the new minimum determinate and awarded
merit time and good time.
All other non-Class A-I drug
offenders under custody who have not reached their minimum sentences would
be eligible for an additional merit time reduction of 1/6 off their minimum
sentences. Approximately 10,000 would be eligible for the additional
Increased determinate sentences
for drug felons with prior violent felony convictions.
Mandatory 3-year consecutive
sentence for those who carry, use or possess a gun in the course of the
commission of certain drug offenses.
New kingpin offense for those
who exercise leadership roles in a controlled substance organization.
Enhanced penalty for a person
21 years or older for using a minor less than 18 years of age in the commission
of a drug sale or for using the Internet to sell illegal drugs.
His proposal is a "just and
balanced bill," Pataki added, one that sends "a clear message that New
Yorkers will not tolerate those who jeopardize the health and safety of
our communities by selling drugs."
But while Simmons and Democratic
presidential contender Al Sharpton signed on in support of Pataki's new
proposal, they were almost alone. "We are most disappointed by the
complete lack of judicial discretion and the absence of any drug treatment
diversion provision or funding for low-level offenders under this proposal,"
said State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver in a joint statement with Jeffrion
Aubry (D-Queens), who has made changing the Rockefeller laws a capstone
of his political career. Silver's aides told the New York Times the
Pataki plan couldn't even be considered dead on arrival, since it had never
officially arrived -- only an outline had been slipped under an Assembly
lawyer's door Monday night.
"This is a great public relations
move, but it is bad public policy," Andrew Cuomo told the Albany Times-Union.
Cuomo, a former Democratic gubernatorial contender, had worked with Simmons
in pushing for reform. "Now, we don't know what the bill actually
"On balance, we think it
is a bad deal," Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York
told the Times. "The message that needs to be communicated to the
governor and to Russell Simmons is, "Don't come back with a drug law reform
proposal unless it restores sentencing discretion to judges.'"
As if that criticism weren't
enough, even the Drug Policy Alliance, which had shepherded Simmons in
earlier negotiations with the governor, was keeping its distance.
"From my perspective, what they did was take a tentative agreement and
add a lot of frills to it that eviscerates any of the good stuff that was
in it," said Deborah Small, the group's director of public policy, who
had accompanied Simmons at the June meetings. "If this passes, it
will do more harm than good."
Paradoxically, Simmons' miscue
in signing on to the governor's newest model may have helped solidify a
movement for repeal or radical reform which had begun to splinter as the
possibility of a deal drew tantalizingly near. Simmons' endorsement
of the Pataki plan can be excused as a political newcomer's naivete, but
that's no excuse for Pataki and state Senate Republicans. Rockefeller
reform still appears as far off as the day Pataki began claiming he wanted
it in January 2001.
-- END --
Issue #296, 7/18/03
Editorial: Tragic Confusion |
Medical Marijuana Eroding Capitol Hill Prohibition Consensus -- Democrats Also On Attack against Drug Czar, Drug War in General |
With Hip-Hopper's Support, NY Governor Tries Again on Rockefeller Law Reform -- Not Good Enough, Say Critics |
Bush, Ashcroft Ask Supreme Court for Permission to Punish Doctors Who Recommend Medical Marijuana |
DRCNet Book Review: "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America," by Ted Galen Carpenter (2003, Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95) |
Newsbrief: North Carolina Prosecutor Charges Methamphetamine Cook with Terrorist Offense |
Newsbrief: Whites Benefit from California's Proposition 36 Disproportionately, UCLA Study Finds |
Newsbrief: No Needle Exchange in Delaware -- Lack of Political Support Cited |
Newsbrief: Colombian Supreme Court Blocks President's Effort to Recriminalize Drug Possession |
Newsbrief: Brazil to Cooperate in Andean Drug Plane Shoot-Down Strategy |
Newsbrief: Peru to Modify Drug Penalties -- One Step Forward, One Step Back, Some Standing in Place |
Newsbrief: Legalize It, Says Canada's National Post |
Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story |
Web Scan: CEDRO, Foreign Policy, Reason, Nation, Working for Change, Washington Post, Molly Ivins, usfumigation.org, UN Report, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sentencing Project |
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