Pubdate: Thu, 10 May 2001
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2001 Newsday Inc.
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


THIRTY-YEAR-old Curtis Keith is in the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in 
upstate New York, where he's serving a 16- to 30-year sentence for intent 
to sell a half-ounce of cocaine in 1994.

Carol Brooks, 37, is doing 11 years to life at Bedford Hills, the state 
prison for women, for possession and conspiracy involving one- half to 2 
ounces of cocaine in 1996. At the time of her arrest, she had no criminal 

And Georgette Reed, 44, is doing 12 1/2 to 25 years for criminal possession 
and sale of .08 grams of cocaine. When she was arrested, she had one prior 
conviction-for selling a dime bag of cocaine-but got such a long sentence 
because she was a second-time offender.

They are among the 22,000 inmates who are doing time in New York prisons 
for drug crimes. Only a small percentage are major drug dealers. Many are 
low-level, non-violent drug users who may have sold a little on the side. 
But they're doing more time than many criminals do for murder, rape and 

For years, judges, drug-law reformers and inmates' families have called for 
the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws and the Second Felony Offender Law.

Both passed in 1973, the laws mandate long sentences for relatively minor 
crimes. Earlier this year, Gov. George Pataki promised to make "dramatic" 
changes in the laws. But he has since backtracked, coming up with a plan 
that its critics say is woefully inadequate, if not downright retrograde.

"He took one step forward and two steps backward," says Randy Credico, 
director of the Williams Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which 
organized a rally against the current drug laws this week outside Pataki's 
Manhattan office.

Pataki's plan would allow more than 600 inmates who are serving the longest 
sentences-15 to life and 25 years to life-to appeal to the state courts to 
have their sentences reduced to 8 1/3 years. But it would do nothing for 
the largest group of inmates: those convicted of lesser drug crimes and 
repeat offenders sentenced under the Second Felony Offender Law-inmates 
that include Keith, Reed and Brooks.

"They're simply on the low level of the totem pole," is how Jamie Fellner, 
associate counsel to Human Rights Watch, describes most of the inmates 
doing time in New York's prisons for drug crimes.

"I suggest that the cure is worse than the disease." Some say Pataki 
announced his intention to reform the drug laws in order to woo black and 
Latino voters away from state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, a potential 
contender for the governor's job. But with the state's district attorneys 
opposed to any drastic change, the governor has avoided any dramatic 
reforms, his critics say.

The governor's plan won't cut it. Real reform means scrapping the Second 
Felony Offender Law, increasing the amount (measured in weight) of illegal 
drugs for which jail sentences would kick in and giving judges the 
discretion to decide whether a convicted offender gets prison time and how 
much time the offender should receive or whether to divert the defendant 
into drug treatment or some alternate form of punishment.

Judges complain bitterly that because of the mandatory sentences, they are 
boxed into giving long prison sentences when they don't want to. Right now, 
a judge is required to sentence a second-time defendant convicted of a 
minor drug crime to 4 1/2 years, whether the judge wants to or not. A 
person who's convicted of selling any amount of a controlled drug-up to a 
half-ounce-can be punished with a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

When it comes to crimes involving marijuana, Pataki's "reform" plan is even 
worse than the current law. Now, possessing a small amount of marijuana can 
get a person a $100 fine, while three marijuana offenses in three years can 
get one 15 days in jail. But under the governor's plan, a fourth marijuana 
offense within five years could land a person in prison for 3 1/2 years. 
This is ridiculous for a drug that has been scientifically proven to be 
less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

The governor's bill is before the state Senate, where it should be 
rejected. An alternate bill soon to be introduced in the state Assembly is 
better, but doesn't go nearly as far as it should.

It's time to repeal these ridiculous laws, which have clogged up the 
state's prisons with low-level drug offenders. By eating up so many years 
of these inmates' lives, the state has committed a bigger crime than the 
people who were tried and convicted.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Thunder