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Public Safety

Rockefeller Drug Law Reform?

After 32 years of struggle against the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York public officials are claiming that these laws finally have been reformed. Earlier this year, and then again this month, Governor George Pataki and the state legislature enacted changes to the law that, in theory, would affect about 1,000 prisoners. Yes, this seems to pale besides the 16,000 people locked up under the laws – a staggering 93 percent of them black and Latino. But it sounded like a good start.

As a person who spent a dozen years in prison for a first-time non-violent drug offense -- and was released early only because I was granted clemency -- I have made it a mission of my life to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated a harsh sentence for me, as it has for thousands of other New Yorkers.

Since 1973 when the Rockefeller Laws were enacted, we have witnessed a badly created law that incarcerated many drug offenders from the inner city neighborhoods of New York. This in turn, created smart upstate rural politicians, who saw the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a tool to help make the business of imprisonment a major industry in their districts – creating a disincentive in the legislature to reform these laws.

Under these laws, people convicted of drug offenses face the same penalties as those convicted of murder, and harsher penalties than those convicted of rape.

As I wrote on Gotham Gazette earlier this year, through constant political pressure we managed to get the point across to New York politicians. When the pressure mounted to the point of affecting their political careers, politicians reacted. Finally, early in 2005 a revision was made that affected 446 prisoners sentenced under the A-1 felony statute. A huge applause was heard. Politicians felt the pressure easing. Individuals who had called for reform began backing off. After all those years of fighting finally a change had occurred.

Now early this month, Governor George Pataki and the state legislature proudly announced another change that would affect about 540 prisoners sentenced under A-2 felonies. From a cursory glance at those who were not familiar with the history of the struggle, it seemed as though the problem was fixed.

However, if we take a good look at the history of the first change most of the 446 A-1 felons eligible for relief are still in prison. According to the Department of Correction as of July, 2005, only 86 were set free.

I sat in the courtroom with a middle-aged mother who had been arrested in 1999 with a few ounces of cocaine. Though it was a first offense, she was sentenced to 17-to-life. She was a drug mule, according to the facts of the record. But the Queens district attorney's office twisted and manipulated the facts to make her look like she was a kingpin who had abused her young daughter because the child was present in the room with a package of cocaine.

That daughter, now a traumatized teen, has been placed in a foster home. She had lost her mother and her childhood. She was in the courtroom praying for her mother along with two nuns with whom she now lives. The judge and Queens District Attorney Dick Brown agreed to reduce her mother's sentence to nine years-to-life--leaving her to serve an additional five years. The daughter left the courtroom in tears.


"These reforms are just symbolic if they're not implemented," Bill Gibney, lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, has said. "The vast majority of people eligible to petition for early release are still behind bars. The Governor and Legislature shouldn't pat themselves on the back until they've ensured that these reforms are duly acted upon. Without granting freedom along with reform, the reform remains the same political rhetoric we have heard for years.

Anthony Papa is author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom 



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