Source: In These Times
Pubdate: 12 July 1998

The women, maybe 200 in all, waited in small groups. They carried bulky old
pocketbooks and frayed overnight bags stuffed with food and water and
blankets for the long ride upstate. Several had sleepy children in tow.

It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday in May at Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan,
where the Operation Prison Gap buses pick up weekend passengers headed for
places like Attica, Auburn, Elmira and Ogdensburg. "Get down off that bench
before you fall," Violet Vargas barks at her 4-year-old daughter. "Her
father's in Riverview," Vargas says. "Five-to-15 for drugs. I try to see
him every weekend."

The bus ride to Riverview Correctional Facility takes 10 hours one way. It
costs $45 round trip. "We get there in the morning and my daughter gets to
spend most of the day with him," Vargas says. "The guards at Riverview are
nice. It's a big sacrifice for me, but he's been a good father."

A few feet away, Anthony Papa passes out leaflets to the waiting women. "Is
your man in jail for drugs?" Papa asks them. "Fill out this sheet. We've
got to change these Rockefeller Drug Laws."

Papa is practically a Ph.D. on the Rockefeller laws. In 1985, he was a
successful middle-class businessman. He owned an auto-repair and radio
business in the Bronx. He was married with a family and had never been in
trouble with the law. Every week, he played in a bowling league in Yonkers.

A member of his team turned out to be a drug dealer who distributed cocaine
at bowling alleys across suburban Westchester County. One day, the guy
asked if Papa wanted to make some easy money. He offered him $500 to
deliver an envelope of cocaine to the town of Mt. Vernon. Papa foolishly
agreed. The courier who gave him the envelope turned out to be an
undercover police informant. When Papa delivered the 4.5 ounces of coke, 20
cops were waiting.

The guys who set up Papa copped a plea. Papa went to trial and was
convicted on two counts, sales and possession. The judge gave him a break:
He sentenced Papa to one 15-to-life sentence instead of two. Papa served 12
years in Sing Sing.

In prison, he earned two bachelor's degrees and a master's from the New
York Theological Seminary. He became a recognized artist, even exhibiting
some paintings at the Whitney Museum.

He would still be in jail if Gov. George Pataki hadn't granted him clemency
in December 1996. Pataki, following the tradition of past governors,
pardons a handful of Rockefeller Law inmates every Christmas. Papa now
works as a legal assistant at a patent and trademark law firm. In his spare
time he is trying to build a movement to restore some sanity to our justice

When the New York drug laws were enacted 25 years ago by then Gov. Nelson
Rockefeller, they were the toughest in the nation. Even today, a first-time
offender convicted of selling 2 ounces of cocaine in New York gets a
mandatory sentence of 15 years-to-life. Drug offenses are treated as
harshly as murder, rape and kidnapping.

As a result, the jails have exploded with drug felons. In 1973, there were
12,500 inmates in the New York state prison system. Today there are more
than 69,000. In 1980, 57 percent of prison inmates were there for violent
crimes, only 11 percent for drugs. By last year, those rates were almost
reversed. "The Rockefeller laws were the prototype," says Robert Gangi,
director of the Correctional Association of New York. "During the '70s and
'80s, virtually every state in the nation adopted mandatory sentencing laws
based on the Rockefeller model for drug and repeat felony convictions."

Pataki and many other law-and-order Republicans admit the mandatory drug
sentences haven't worked, but they don't dare look soft on crime by
overhauling them. Some, like Warren Anderson, who was Republican majority
leader in the state Senate when Rockefeller pushed through the original
laws, are now campaigning quietly to restore some discretion to judges.
Other groups, like the Correctional Association of New York and the William
Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, are seeking total repeal of the
laws, a far less likely possibility.

Rockefeller has been dead a long time. But thousands are living out his
legacy behind bars. Children of Rockefeller law convicts are left to grow
up without their fathers or mothers whose sentences are obscene compared to
some violent felons. Robert Chambers, for instance, who strangled Jennifer
Levin in Central Park a decade ago, got five-to- 15 years. Joel Steinberg
got eight-to-25 for the cocaine-induced killing of his daughter Lisa.
Wilfred Letlow, who fatally stabbed his wife 92 times in their Queens
home., was sentenced to eight-to-25 years for manslaughter.

But sell 4 ounces of cocaine, and you'll get 15-to-life. 
- ---
Checked-by: Richard Lake