Anthony Papa with self-portrait,
Little over thirty years ago Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the New York State legislature created the toughest drug laws in the nation. Their aim was to curb the drug epidemic, capture drug kingpins and create harsh drug laws that would combat drug use and selling. In reality this did not occur. Instead these laws have filled our prisons with non violent drug offenders, primarily from NYC neighborhoods. Over 94 percent of those incarcerated are black and Latino. Over 80 percent of New Yorkers agree that these laws are not effective and there is a need to created meaningful reform. In 2002 for the first time in history the governor of New York and legislative leaders called for reform.
In 2004 and 2005 following that call, the New York Stare Legislature imposed changes in the Rockefeller Drug Laws. These reforms were meant to allow current drug offenders who have already served long sentences to apply for reduced sentences. They also lowered drug sentences and expanded prison-based drug treatment. These minor reforms, in theory, would affect about 1000 drug war prisoners eligible for resentencing under the Drug Law Reform Act (DRLA).
I served 12 years of a 15 to life sentence for a non-violent drug offense after passing an envelope to undercover officers containing 4 ounces of cocaine in exchange for 500 dollars. I made the biggest mistake of my life just like many others who are serving hard time. In 1997 I was granted clemency by Governor Pataki, who recognized the injustice of my sentence. Most of the people I left behind were serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses. I then became an activist who has fought tooth and nail for meaningful reform and was very disappointed to see that very little was done in the minor changes made in 2004 and 2005.
While these changes were a first small step, much more needs to be done, like addressing the issue of the 4,800 B-felons who make up the largest group of drug prisoners. Currently selling small quantities of drugs can land you a sentence up to nine years for a first offense, equal to a B-level crime such as rape or armed robbery.
But almost more upsetting than the lack of changes has been the response made by the prosecutors of New York, who often distort the facts associated with these reforms. The most outspoken opponents of these laws have continuously put out a "war cry" to the media and the public about the dangers of revising these laws and how the gateways of hell would be open if the laws were changed. If you look through their hype you will discover the underlying reasoning behind their stance. Prosecutors live and die by their rates of conviction. This is the bottom line.
With activists inching closer to meaningful reform comes the reality that prosecutors would eventually lose their omnipotent power in drug law cases. As it stands with the new reforms they maintained this power. They still control the outcome of a drug case from its beginning.
While the prosecutors point to a handful of people who are undeserving of relief under the new reforms, the vast majority are non-violent offenders who deserve a chance to reenter society and be treated with compassion. Just like when NYC District Attorney Bob Morgenthau showed compassion recently for the NYU "Pot Princess" Julia Diaco who was sentenced to treatment and 5 years probation instead of a 25 year sentence for 8 separate felony sales. And before her , Governor Pataki's former Rockefeller Drug Law spokesperson who was busted for buying crack cocaine and sentenced to a 250-dollar fine and treatment.. We have to think about the concept of redemption and compassion for all. People can change their lives. I know this for a fact.
According to Drug Policy Alliance, a leading policy group in NYC, 70 percent of the 1,000 prisoners that were eligible for relief under the new reforms are still in prison.
One of the most significant reasons for this is that prosecutors almost always argue for the maximum sentence, ignoring the records of rehabilitation and relying on old facts that were maintained many years earlier. One of the most controversial points of Rockefeller reform is judicial discretion. Under the current laws, judges have little power to place offenders in treatment. The power is maintained by the prosecutors, who also decide what charges are appropriate. Advocates for reform argue how could justice be served by allowing the one party who measures success by their conviction rates? Discretion should be available to the presiding judge, who is the only objective person in the case.
It may be true that inner city neighborhoods are devastated by drug use. However, this is not the only root cause for this. Lack of opportunity, unemployment and education are also contributing factors. One of the most significant factors is also the lack of drug treatment. Under the new reforms the State legislature did not fund community based treatment, which has been found to be the most cost effective way to reduce drug use.
While in prison, I became a jailhouse lawyer and litigated dozens of drug cases and never once came across a "drug kingpin". Most of these prisoners were non-violent drug users that needed treatment. However, treatment was not available in prison then, and it is not available now.
We need to create laws that will protect the community and at the same time be fair and just. The Rockefeller Drug Laws in many ways have become crueler than the crimes that are committed. They go beyond the individuals that committee crimes. They destroy their families and put a financial burden on tax payers that foot the bill for an ancient and proven ineffective approach to the drug problem. The drug war has fueled the prison industrial complex. Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built in rural Republican upstate communities. They have become a source of revenue for upstate politicians that have discovered a cash cow. Instead of filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders we should concentrate on alternatives like drug treatment and the creation of jobs and education for the communities of color which is affected the most in the efforts to lock our way out of the drug problem. Only then will we be able to solve the drug war problem in New York.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom