Last year, the New York state legislature began chipping away at the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws by cutting the sentences for the most serious category of drug offenses, so-called A-I offenses. While that move brought relief to a small number of New York drug prisoners, a measure already passed by both houses of the legislature that would extend resentencing opportunities to the next most serious A-II offenders awaits the signature of Gov. George Pataki. He has until August 30 to sign the bill.
Under the Rockefeller laws, persons caught with as little as a few ounces of drugs faced from 15 years to life in prison. Last year's first reform effort cut the minimum sentence to eight years and eliminated most life sentences. It also allowed A-I prisoners to apply for sentence cuts in line with the new sentences. The bill awaiting Pataki's signature this year would extend that privilege to some 500 A-II prisoners.
With public support for real reform of the Rockefeller laws running high -- one poll showed 80% in favor -- Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders have all claimed for years to be in favor of revamping the laws, but, with the exception of last year's first tiny step, have failed to do so. The Real Reform coalition, which advocates for repeal of the Rockefeller laws and which includes organizations such as the Correctional Association of New York, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the New York Mothers of the Disappeared, is pressuring Pataki to sign the bill.
"The Governor has talked a lot about Rockefeller reform, and now we expect him to walk the talk and sign this bill immediately," said Gabriel Sayegh, Policy Analyst at Drug Policy Alliance.
But Real Reform recognizes that the governor's signature on this year's bill is only a second tiny step. With more than 16,000 people doing time for drug crimes in New York, many of them first-time, nonviolent offenders serving years for simple possession, only those facing the most inhumanely long sentences have yet won relief, and this year's bill would leave more than 15,000 less serious offenders rotting in prison.
"This is a good next step, but it still doesn't help my son, or the thousands of people like him," said Cheri O'Donoghue, whose son Ashley, a class B offender, is serving 7-to-21 years for a first-time non-violent drug offense. "This affects tens of thousands of families."