No Change in Sight for Rockefeller Drug Laws

It doesn't look like reform of New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws will be happening any time soon. In Waiting for Drug Laws to Change, and Marking Off the Years, New York Times reporter Matthew Purdy's tone can be best described as depressed. We knew it was going to be a sad article as soon as we read this:

"Elaine Bartlett has gotten some nice snapshots of herself with big-shot New York politicians in recent months....Ms. Bartlett was granted clemency by Gov. George E. Pataki in late 1999. Ever since, she has worked to change the Rockefeller-era drug laws, the nation's toughest, which kept her locked up for 16 years on her first offense."

Ms. Bartlett's crime was delivering a package for her boyfriend that contained 4 oz. of cocaine. Her boyfriend got 19 years for selling it. The judge married them and then sent them off to do their time.

Just so you know how absurd a 16 year sentence is for this first offense, here's what she what she would have gotten had she been charged in federal court. Worst case scenario, if she went to trial and lost, and the Judge didn't believe she was just delivering for her boyfriend, but was an equal participant in the sale, she would have gotten 27 to 33 months.

More likely, is this scenario: Facing less than 3 years as a maximum sentence, and caught doing a delivery, she would have pleaded guilty. If the Judge believed she was delivering for her boyfriend and thus had a lesser role than him in the offense, she would have gotten 12 to 18 months. If the Judge thought she was an equal participant, she would have gotten 18 to 24 months.

As Purdy points out, "Politicians at almost every point on the political spectrum agree that the [Rockefeller] laws are too stiff and give judges too little discretion. But in the alchemy of Albany, agreement has turned out to be as good a recipe for inaction as disagreement is."

This past June, it looked like there would be a change. Governor Pataki was courting the hispanic vote for this November's election. A disproportionate number of those in jail serving draconian sentences under the Rockefeller laws are hispanic. Pataki repeatedly said overhauling the drug laws was his top priority. He called together the Mothers for the Disappeared, looking to get their support, and he promised them reform. Then he outlined his plan, which would have only brought immediate relief to 200 of the 19.000 inmates imprisoned under the law. The Mothers declined. (For more on Mothers of the Disappeared, see this Salon article)

The Democrats were in favor of change as well. But they disagreed with Pataki, saying his reforms didn't go far enough. Pataki came up with a better plan, still not enough, but as Purdy points out, "It wouldn't exactly have taken Solomon to split the difference."

Instead, everyone lost interest. An no changes were made. "There's little mystery what happened as spring turned to summer and summer turned into the campaign season. "Nobody wanted to give anybody credit," said Doreen LaMarca, whose brother is serving 25 years to life for a first-time drug offense. "It's the election."

And, "Blame makes a better sound bite than credit." So Pataki is now blaming the Dems for wanting too much and the Dems are blaming Pataki for offering to do too little. We blame Pataki. We believe, as do others, he is too beholden to the prosecutors in New York who vehemently oppose all but the most minor changes in the law. Under Pataki's plan, prosecutors will have far too much discretion in matters such as who gets treatment instead of prison. Such decisions should be made by impartial judges.

Another problem with Pataki's plan: "...the new plan also includes several flaws and loopholes that benefit prosecutors and render the bill unacceptable to the Assembly. For instance, people arrested within 1,000 feet of a school or 100 feet of a park could not ask a judge to send them into treatment. That would disqualify most people arrested in New York City, advocates for addicts said."

Along comes conservative Tom Golisano, Independent candidate for Governor (his third try no less) and in an effort to gain the black and hispanic vote, has been meeting with Ms. Bartlett and the other members of Mothers of the Disappeared, promising not just reform, but repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws. He even made a campaign commercial with them. He has money, but he trails badly behind McCall, the democratic candidate, who in turn trails behind Pataki. He's also the most conservative of the candidates, except on this issue.

Our prior post with facts from a new report on the Rockefeller drug laws is here.

Some additional findings of the Report on the effect of these drug laws on children of those imprisoned:

  • "An estimated 23,537 children currently have parents in New York prisons convicted of drug charges."
  • "An estimated 11,113 currently incarcerated New York drug offenders are parents of children. "
  • "Since 1980, an estimated 124,496 children have had at least one parent imprisoned in New York on drug charges. "
  • "Some 50 percent of mothers and fathers in New York prisons for drug convictions do not receive visits from their children."
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