HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html It's Time for Tough Questions About Drug Law
Pubdate: Thu, 09 May 2002
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2002 Newsday Inc.
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


They were out on Manhattan's Third Avenue yesterday: the retired judge, the
pardoned former prison inmate, the prison reformers, the drug-policy people,
the treatment-program people, the recovering addicts, a handful of lawyers
and, as always, the relatives of those in prison.

People like Evelyn Sanchez, 62, whose son has spent a decade in Attica and
is still counting, and Minerva Dones, 76, whose grandson has spent seven
years in the Greenhaven State prison facility in upstate New York.

It was the first day of the 30th year since the enactment of the so-called
Rockefeller drug laws, and the people taking part in this rally were doing
what they've done for years: demanding the repeal of laws that have filled
more state prisons than any other laws that have ever been passed.

Because they mandate long sentences for even relatively minor drug crimes,
and because they often ensnare low-level and first-time offenders, many
judges, drug policymakers and officials acknowledge that the laws have done
more harm than good. Yet the calls for reform continue to fall on deaf ears.

Republican Gov. George Pataki promised to change the drug laws last year and
came up with a tepid reform plan, which Democrats in the State Assembly
refused to vote on because in an election year they were afraid of being
seen as soft on drugs. And the politicians in Albany are still

Pataki is up for re-election this year and is courting the Latino vote. But
with Latinos and blacks comprising the vast majority of those doing time for
drug crimes in New York, the laws' opponents are calling on Latino voters to
put pressure on the governor.

"I want to tell Pataki he needs our votes, and he needs to do something
about this Rockefeller drug law," Sanchez told me.

"He speaks Spanish, but he doesn't like us," she said. "He gets us

The drug-law reform that Pataki has on the table is lousy. It gives judges
the power to reduce a small portion of the longest sentences. But it
actually increases the penalties for marijuana-related crimes and provides
not a single dollar for drug treatment. A proposal before the Assembly would
give judges sentencing discretion in more cases and includes a treatment
piece. But, frankly, none of the proposals is that great.

Real drug-law reform would require making the sale and use of marijuana
legal, thereby eliminating the arrests of hundreds of people every day and
giving them criminal records. It would, quite frankly, legalize and regulate
the sale of all narcotics. It would provide drug treatment for anybody who
wanted it, without making it mandatory for non-violent addicts who don't
want it.

But none of this is going to happen. Politicians are too cowardly to correct
a drug policy that is hopelessly flawed, especially since they've gotten
more mileage out of their war on drugs than Sen. Joseph McCarthy got out of
his war on communists, with just as little success.

But it is time for politicians to start asking why we arrest so many people
for drug crimes, what the rationale is for continuing to lock them up for
long periods, and who is profiting from this strategy. They should ask who,
besides them, has benefited from this war on drugs and whether society as a
whole has benefited from laws that had 22,000 people doing prison time in
New York state as of a year ago.

And they need to ask if these imprisonments have caused less drug addiction,
decreased drug availability, and increased the price of marijuana, crack and
heroin, or if they've prevented people from going from marijuana use to
heroin addiction.

I don't expect our politicians to ask these questions seriously or to answer
them honestly. But at least they can take some baby steps. That means giving
judges the discretion to determine sentences in drug cases. It means
allowing those already incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws to apply
for reductions of their sentences. It certainly means not increasing the
penalties for marijuana crimes. And it means increasing the availability of
drug treatment, which all politicians talk about, but very few follow
through on.

Doing these things would at least be a step in the right direction, in a
climate where the courage to do the right thing is sorely lacking.
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