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.
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.