Restructuring Rockefeller: DRUG LAW CHANGES APPLAUDED
Russel Simmons, joined by Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Run, speaks at a press conference for Rockefeller Drug Law reform earlier this year.
By Raynelle Cerica Bull and Azi Paybarah
After years of protests and petitioning against the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Gov. George Pataki signed new legislation Tuesday that will reform the drug laws, reducing some sentences and offering drug treatment as a sentencing option.
Since Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created them in 1973, the New York State drug laws have been controversial. The severity of mandatory sentences has caused numerous celebrities, organizations and elected officials to band together in a fight to have the penalties lessened.
Now that reform to the drug laws is in place, some individuals are preparing to continue the fight for more restructuring of the laws, while others demand that the laws remain untouched.
The Governor and his Drug Laws
In May 1973, Rockefeller signed a set of anti-drug laws in an attempt to severely crack down on New York State residents using or selling drugs. According to the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, the Rockefeller Drug Laws are among the most severe in the country.
As they stood until Tuesday, the drug laws took sentencing out of the hands of the prosecutors, mandating that an individual charged with a first-time Class A-1 felony would face a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. A Class A-1 felony could include possession of four ounces of illegal narcotics without any intent for sale.
Reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws has reportedly been a top priority for Pataki, the New York Senate and Assembly for more than five years. Because the three entities agreed that some portions of the law were “too harsh,” the new law alters the sentencing structure for drug offenders.
“Hundreds of non-violent offenders serving unduly long sentences will have an opportunity to be immediately reunited with their families,” Pataki said.
Under the reform law, sentences of 15 years-to-life for Class A-1 drug offenders will now range from 8 to 20 years. The threshold possession weights required for an A-1 drug felony conviction have been doubled from four ounces to eight, and the weight requirement for an A-II drug felony will also double from two ounces to four.
The law will allow imprisoned Class A-1 drug offenders to go up for re-sentencing, which could result in becoming eligible for drug treatment programs and release from prison.
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee, would like to see the record of individuals convicted on a first-time offense expunged, allowing them to pursue a career or life without a felony restriction. “You can’t even be a barber with a felony record,” Aubry said.
A State Divided
Though Russell Simmons, who is chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and various elected Queens officials consider Pataki’s signing of the legislation the first step in the fight for additional changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, other community leaders want to put their foot down before any more adjustments are made to the drug laws.
One of the future changes sought after by those in favor of the reform law is having judges determine all sentencing for drug convictions. “We need to put the discretion in the hands of the judge, as opposed to the prosecutors,” said Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans).
According to Scarborough, who has been an avid supporter for reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws for the last decade, some prosecutors feel they have to show how tough on crime they are resulting in harsh sentencing, without considering drug treatment alternatives.
In a statement released by Queens DA Richard Brown in August 2001, he said that prosecutors support the expansion of drug treatment as long as the individual is identified as someone in need of treatment. “But to go beyond that – to dismantle our drug and second felony offender laws that have been so successful in lowering the level of violence in our society and providing the leverage necessary to induce non-violent addicts into treatment – would be a mistake.
Like Brown, Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who was a former prosecutor, sees no reason to weaken the drug laws because, as he put it, they are not as tough and unfair as they seem. “The supposed harsh mandatory minimums don’t kick in unless a person possess over $50,000 worth of drugs. For some reason that never seems to be mentioned.”
While the District Attorneys Association of New York State is concerned that “judges will now have discretion to sentence a major drug-kingpin, caught selling enough heroin to supply a city, to as little as eight years,” Aubry is convinced that the prosecutors’ definition of “kingpins” does not refer to most individuals convicted from Queens.
“Real kingpins are like the guy they just caught with millions of dollars coming out of Colombia. Here in Queens, where these guys don’t have cars, they use bicycles and live with their mamas. They’re not kingpins,” said Aubry.
The Fight Must Go On
For many involved in the fight for reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the battle has just begun. Supporters of reform to the drug laws see this as the first hurdle to a long race.
“Some progress to repeal the laws has been made and I congratulate all those that contributed to this worthwhile cause, but we don’t believe the fight should stop here,” said Charles Fisher, chairman and founder of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council.
Elected officials like State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Scarborough could not agree more. They would like to see more financial support and drug treatment alternatives implemented in the upcoming years and more drug relief options should be offered in prison.
According to Smith, there is no rest for the weary, so he plans to stay on the issue for the long haul. “In another couple of years, if the Democrats are in the majority, [it] will hopefully come to the table again.