With Hip-Hopper's Support, NY Governor Tries Again on Rockefeller Law Reform -- Not Good Enough, Say Critics 7/18/03

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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 merely window-dressing.

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:

  • 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, first offenders.
  • 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 only.
  • 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 reduction.
  • 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.
"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."

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 means."

"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.

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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 | The Reformer's Calendar

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