Pubdate: Sat, 05 May 2007
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 Independent Media Institute
Author: Gabriel Sayegh
Note: Gabriel Sayegh is a project director at the Drug Policy 
Alliance in New York City.
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


This April, the New York State Assembly passed important legislation
to reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. The bill, sponsored by
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, increases drug treatment
alternatives to incarceration, expands judicial discretion to restore
fairness in our courts and, critically, allows for people currently
serving harsh prison terms for low-level drug offenses to seek
much-needed relief.

The Assembly should be commended for passing smart reforms. But where
are the governor and the state Senate on drug law reform?

While running for governor, Eliot Spitzer campaigned on a promise:
"Day One, Everything Changes." Spitzer made campaign statements in
support of real reform of the laws. Lt. Gov. David Paterson was a
long-time reform champion while Senate minority leader. Families and
advocates working for repeal of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws were
cautiously optimistic about Spitzer's promise. It seemed entirely
possible that on Day One, the Rockefeller laws, after nearly 34 long,
terrible years, might finally be repealed.

But in the first hundred days of the new administration, drug law
reform went missing in action. Spitzer took on a variety of important
issues, but the Rockefeller Drug Laws didn't even make his priority
list for the end of the legislative session.

Why is it so hard to win real reform, when everyone knows these laws
are racist, ineffective, wasteful and unjust? So asks longtime
advocate Cheri O'Donoghue, whose son, Ashley, is serving seven to 21
years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Ashley is one of more
than 14,000 people incarcerated under these harsh laws.

The answer to Cheri's question is downright sinister, but it's no
secret. The reason the Rockefeller Drug Laws haven't been done away
with is because of a despicable trinity of racism, cash cows and the
U.S. census, not to mention the people who rely on this trinity for
their political survival. From 1817 to 1981, New York built 33
prisons. But from 1982 to 2000, New York built 38 more prisons -- all
of them upstate. The unprecedented prison boom was largely an economic
development plan meant to ameliorate the job loss upstate. Rural,
white communities were clamoring to build and staff prisons. The
Rockefeller Drug Laws delivered the bodies with harsh
mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses.

The RAND Corp. and other think tanks have shown that drug use and
abuse is roughly equal across all racial groups. But the Rockefeller
Drug Laws always have been marked by severe racial bias. Today, 91
percent of the people incarcerated under these laws are black and
Latino. It's a scenario we'd expect to find in an apartheid state, not
a democracy.

Once elected, Spitzer proposed the possibility of closing half-empty
prisons in upstate New York, saving millions of dollars. Many groups
applauded Spitzer, because New York's prison population has dropped in
recent years and its archaic prison industrial complex needs an
overhaul. The leading voices against studying closing prisons, though,
were politically very powerful. The correction officers union and
upstate politicians have parlayed the politics of imprisonment into
lucrative businesses and political careers. The prospects for reform
have at least dimmed, if they haven't died altogether.

The plot thickens, though. More than 76 percent of the state's prison
inmates come from New York City. The U.S. Census Bureau counts them as
residents of the upstate prisons in which they're incarcerated, not as
residents of the communities from which they came.

Why does this matter? According to the Prison Policy Initiative, if
prisoners were not counted as "residents," seven upstate Senate
districts would be 5 percent short of their required population size,
and thus have to be redrawn. This means that senators in those
districts -- all of them Republicans -- would lose their seats,
causing Republicans to lose their slim Senate majority.
Unsurprisingly, Senate Republicans remain staunch opponents of
repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Two vocal reform opponents -- Sen. Dale Volker of suburban Buffalo and
Sen. Michael Nozzolio of the Finger Lakes -- have more than 17 percent
of the state's prisoners in their districts. Is it any wonder why they
oppose reform?

Spitzer was elected on his record as a crusader against waste and
corruption, no matter what powerful interests stood in his way.
Advocates for drug law reform hoped the new governor would stand up to
the corruption and racism blocking real reform of the Rockefeller Drug
Laws. He now has that chance, with the legislation passed by the
Assembly and sent to the Senate. But the Senate, under Majority Leader
Joseph Bruno, will block those reforms unless the governor gets more
directly involved.

For the sake of justice, and families like the O'Donoghues, let's
demand that the governor makes a priority of drug law reform.

Because if nothing changes, nothing changes.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake