Feature: Turning Up the Heat on New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws (and the Politicians Who Fail to Fix Them)

On Tuesday, New York marked an ugly anniversary -- 34 years since the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were enacted. Now, three years after the legislature enacted the first, timid reforms of those harsh drug laws and one month after the State Assembly voted to broaden them, drug reform activists are seeking to heighten the pressure on Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), Lt. Gov. David Paterson (D), Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), and the Republican-led state Senate to act.

June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
Prisoners sentenced under mandatory minimum Rockefeller drug laws now number more than 13,000, and an astonishing 91% of them are black or brown. The reforms enacted in 2004 have resulted in the release of only 300, leaving thousands of prisoners serving mid-level mandatory minimum sentences still in purgatory.

Spitzer, Paterson, and Cuomo campaigned on Rockefeller law reform, but since they took office the silence has been deafening. In 2003, the hip-hop community, led by empresario Russell Simmons, put tens of thousands people on the street to rally for reform. Now, once again, the hip-hop community is calling out the politicians.

Working with Real Reform New York, a coalition coordinated by the Drug Policy Alliance, hip-hop superstar Jim Jones Tuesday released a new rap single, "Lockdown, USA," a powerful call to reform the Rockefeller laws which has so far run on dozens of radio stations around the country.

A Harlem native, Jones has seen the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws firsthand. Conversely, the politicians in Albany have seen the impact of a mobilized hip-hop nation first hand, too, and reformers report that the prospect of a new call to arms from the hip-hop community has them nervous.

"We're kicking up the pressure now, trying to revive the Russell Simmons coalition approach to Albany, and I'm hearing that they're starting to sweat," said Anthony Papa, a former Rockefeller law prisoner turned author and painter who now works to undo those laws. "They're getting flashbacks of 100,000 people on the street [for the 2003 Russell Simmons Countdown to Fairness], and it's good if that makes them nervous," Papa told the Chronicle.

He isn't just speculating. After publishing an op-ed in the widely-read Huffington Post blog last weekend, titled "Spitzer, Cuomo and Paterson: Where Did You Go?," Papa received a personal call from Paterson's office. "Not too happy," Papa characterized their feelings about it in an e-mail to DRCNet yesterday. And word is that the chatter in Albany about it all is far more extensive than that.

"These guys campaigned on Rockefeller law reform, and now Spitzer has been in office for more than 100 days, and it is nowhere in sight," Papa complained. "Hip-hop is now calling you out, Spitzer!"

It's time for change, said one prisoner's mother. "Small changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws were clearly not enough. My son Ashley is a prime example of this, because he is serving a 7- to 21-year sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense," said Cheri O'Donoghue, an advocate for Real Reform New York. "These inhumane, racist laws have been around for nearly 34 years. Enough is enough."

New York's Drug Law Reform Act of 2004 (DLRA) lowered some drug sentences but it fell far short of allowing most people serving under the more punitive sentences to apply for shorter terms, and it did nothing to increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. While advocates and family members are encouraged by these modest reforms, it is clear that the recent reforms have had a negligible impact on the majority of people behind bars. Most people behind bars on Rockefeller charges are charged with nonviolent lower-level or class-B felonies.

"Given the extraordinary racism associated with these laws, it's unbelievable they've been around for 34 years," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director at Drug Policy Alliance. "We hope that this powerful song will inspire the thousands who attended the 2003 Lockdown, USA rally -- and all outraged New Yorkers -- to pick up the phone and step into the streets to put heat on Governor Spitzer and State Senator Joe Bruno -- to make them keep their word and reform these inhumane laws."

But even if the Democratic administration starts moving on real reform, a huge political obstacle remains in the Republican-dominated Senate, with its strongholds in the prison country of upstate New York. Seven upstate Senate districts held by Republicans depend on prisoner numbers to reach their required population size and would have to be redrawn if large numbers of prisoners were released or the US Census Bureau counted them as residents of their home towns.

Prisons are also a growth industry in Republican-dominated upstate, which has seen dozens of new prisons in the past two decades. It is no surprise that two of the most vocal reform opponents, Sens. Dale Volker (R) of suburban Buffalo and Michael Nozzolio (R) of Finger Lakes have 17% of the state's prison population in their districts.

Spitzer ran on his record as a crusader against waste and corruption. Now, he has the opportunity to undo the Rockefeller drug laws. But will he, or will he bow to political pressure from powerful special interests who benefit directly from the mass incarceration of their nonviolent fellow citizens? The reform community is now turning up the heat to help him do the right thing.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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It's On

I have a nephew who is currently serving a 10 year sentence in Federal Prison in N.C. , who is white. He is a non- violent first offender. I visit this prison "camp" quite often. I do see the majority of blacks that are incarcerated. It is sad what we are allowing our system to do with these non violent drug offenders. It is just so sad. I leave every visit with a broken heart............It's time to make a change, and really stand up for what our country is supposed to be. "The Land Of Second Chances" "The Land of Freedom".............????

Gabriel Sayegh

Why do black people always yell "RACISM" when they want to get their way on something.
That is a bunch of bull crap. Put the racism crap in your back pocket, and state the facts as they are...like innocent families that suffer as a result of the harsh sentencing that first time drug offenders recieve. Like all the money tax payers are subject to every year to pay to house these addicts. Drug addicts are no different than many politicians and JUDGES who are alcoholics. They need help, and so does their families who are victims. They have an illness. They don't have a problem because of their skin color. You could state facts all day long, til you turn blue and have no voice left.
But to use the blacks easy cop out of "RACISM" is bullshit, and I for one am sick of hearing black people whine and cry that they are black. Get over it man. No body cares what the hell color you are.

Racism and the Drug War

Sick as the gentlemen, whom had the integrity to post his name, is of Blacks "crying" about racism the fact remains that America currently has a larger per capita percentage of Blacks imprisoned than were in South Africa before the fall of Apartheid. Or to put it in terms he may understand better - we lock up more Blacks than a country that didn't let Blacks vote until 1994.

People care deeply what color one another are. A large portion of the effort to mobilize drug prohibition over the last century has been aimed squarely at minorities. While scientific statistics have shown over and over again that the majority of drug users in America are today and have always been white - the stereotype of drugged up welfare check collecting minorities persist.

I am white. I live in an incredibly poor Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. And I see 14 year old kids getting thrown against police cars and shaken down for no apparent reason every week. I've been manhandled in the same fashion while my fourth amendment rights were stomped on. "I'm not consenting to a search." "Why the fuck would you say that to me? Huh? You think I just fell off the fucking turnip truck?"

To claim that the drug war affects all races and economic classes equally flies in the face of statistical reality.

Graham Peterson
[email protected]

LTE from Rockefeller family-NYT

June 4, 2005
Fix the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Rockefellers Say
To the Editor:

I write on behalf of 37 other direct descendants of Nelson A. Rockefeller. Thirty-two years ago, as governor of New York, he signed what have become known as the Rockefeller drug laws.

As members of the Rockefeller family, we are proud to be associated with so many of the legacies of Governor Rockefeller, who dedicated his life to serving the people of New York and the country. The laws he put into place 32 years ago were meant to combat the destructive forces of drug abuse and the drug trade. Unfortunately, these laws have proved extremely costly and have not produced the desired results.

We are confident that if Governor Rockefeller were alive today and privy to the data that now exist, he would agree that three immediate reforms are desperately needed: first, ending mandatory minimum sentences; second, ending weight-based sentencing for drug crimes, with judicial focus on punishing drug kingpins; and third, providing financing for alternatives to incarceration.

New York legislators have begun to reform these anachronistic and counterproductive drug laws. They now need to complete what they have started.

Clay Rockefeller
Providence, R.I., May 22, 2005

It would really suck to be in the experiment

For the 32 years, you`d think we as a nation would be able to stop something faster than this? Everone knew it was a failure when it was enacted. How can this be still going on. End the drug war now! Tax the stuff, treatment not prison!

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