Who Goes to Prison in NY?

Who goes to prison under New York's Rockefeller drug laws? According to a well-documented June, 2002 report by Human Rights Watch entitled Collateral Casualties:

"Few of the drug offenders sent to prison are major traffickers or violent, dangerous individuals for whom serious prison sentences are justified. Whether first time or repeat offenders, most of them were convicted of participating in voluntary, nonviolent, retail-level transactions between adults to obtain or sell drugs, or of functioning in other low-level roles in the drug trade:

· 60 percent of the incarcerated drug offenders were convicted of offenses in the three lowest classes of drug felonies-Class C, D, and E-which involve only minute drug amounts.

· Among drug offenders sent to prison, almost one in three (30.7 percent) had no prior felony convictions for any crime.

· 46.1 percent had prior convictions limited to nonviolent felonies.

· Less than one in four (23.2 percent) had any prior violent felony convictions."

"Put in place over a quarter century ago, the so-called Rockefeller drug laws prevent judges from tailoring sentences that are proportionate to the crime. Harsh prison sentences are required for even minor offenses; judges lack the authority to impose alternatives to incarceration such as community-based sanctions or substance abuse treatment."

"For example, for a single $10 sale of cocaine, the lowest sentence a court can impose is a term of one to three years. If the offender has a prior conviction-as many drug offenders do-the lowest sentence is a term of four-and-one-half to nine years in prison. The sentences can be far worse: a first-offender convicted of involvement in the sale of two ounces of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years, with a life-term maximum."

These are hardly cartel-level trafficking amounts.

The laws also unfairly punish mules and drivers by considering only the amount of drugs involved in the offense and the offender's prior record. Federal law recognizes that such persons may occupy a minor or minimal role in the offense and should receive a lesser sentence than the person who hired them to transport the drugs or who was otherwise extensively involved in the distribution chain. New York law makes no such distinction. These outdated laws are among the most punitive in the nation. They need to be changed.

There are at least two additional issues that demonstrate the gross unfairness of these laws: racial disparity and the children.

"The unfairness of many drug sentences is compounded by their discriminatory impact. Prison sentences for drug offenses have been imposed disproportionately on members of racial and ethnic minorities-blacks and Hispanics constitute 94 percent of the drug felons sent to prison but only 31 percent of the state's population. "

"Black men in New York are sent to prison on drug charges at eleven times the rate of white men. The racial disparity in incarceration for drug offenses bears little relation to racial differences in drug offending."

"Available evidence indicates that whites-who constitute 62 percent of New York residents-use, buy, and sell drugs in proportions that differ little from blacks. In absolute numbers, the total of whites who commit drug offenses exceeds the number of blacks. "

"Yet blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges, because drug law enforcement efforts target participants in street-level, retail drug transactions in poor-primarily minority-urban neighborhoods."

Perhaps saddest of all is the effect on the children of the imprisoned, see the comments section to our post yesterday on Andrew Cuomo's withdrawal from the NY Governor's race (we are referring to our comment of course, not the one we were replying to.)

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