Current Month Index  |  Tenant/Inquilino Issues  |  TenantNet 

Will New York State ‘Drop the Rock’?
by Steven Wishnia

Amid much hype last January, Gov. George Pataki proposed reforming New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws, whose 15-to-life mandatory minimum for possession of four ounces of cocaine or heroin is among the harshest drug penalties in the nation.

Protests against the laws have been growing for several years. Most of the state’s 21,000 drug prisoners are not the big-time dealers the laws were aimed at, but low-level dealers or addicts, jailed for less than a few hundred dollars worth of drugs. And 94% of them are black or Latino. Pataki’s bill would reduce the 15-year penalty to 10 to life. It would also allow judges to sentence first offenders charged with possessing up to a half-ounce of cocaine or heroin to treatment instead of prison. "This is a Republican governor proposing the first real reform to the Rockefeller drug laws ever," says Caroline Quartararo, Pataki’s spokesperson for criminal-justice issues.

Yet the real story is more complex. Only about 600 people are serving the 15-to-life maximum. Most of the state’s drug prisoners are small-time dealers with prior felony convictions; the Rockefeller laws give a 4 1/2-year minimum for second-offense sale of any amount of cocaine or heroin. Randy Credico of the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice points to the case of Darius King of Queens: With one prior weapons conviction, he got sentenced to 11-to-22 for selling $5 worth of cocaine.

Pataki’s proposal would reduce the penalty for second-offense sales to four years. "It wouldn’t really affect the vast majority," says Deborah Peterson-Small of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. It also would increase penalties for marijuana offenses.

A group of mostly black Democrats in the state legislature, led by Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry of Queens and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn, has introduced a bill that would allow second felons treatment. The bill (S00840 in the Senate, A02823 in the Assembly) would also increase judges’ discretion to impose lesser sentences if they believe the statutory minimums are "unduly harsh," increase defendants’ latitude for plea-bargaining to lesser offenses, and let prisoners apply for reduced sentences retroactively.

Despite bipartisan support for changing the laws, action this year is far from certain. Similar proposals by Pataki and Aubry failed in 1999, as the governor wanted to abolish parole and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, feared being labeled "soft on crime."

One sticking point is that Pataki wants to eliminate parole for drug felons, replacing indeterminate sentences, such as five to 15 years, with a requirement that prisoners must serve at least 85% of their terms. "Until that demand is off the table, we’re not going anywhere," says Joseph Haslip, chief of staff for State Sen. David Paterson (D-Manhattan). The strongest opposition to any change has come from the state’s prosecutors. "We have the jump on violent crime now," says Mary de Bourbon, spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. "To weaken the laws would be a terrible mistake."

De Bourbon also argues that the law is not packing the prisons with small-time dealers. Four ounces of cocaine, she claims, is worth almost $100,000 on the street. (In reality, the price of cocaine has fallen drastically since the laws were enacted.)

Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York--which is leading a "Drop the Rock" campaign against the laws--was at first optimistic, saying that Pataki’s January announcement "represents a political breakthrough more important than the details." But he suspects the prosecutors’ criticisms have gotten to Pataki, calling the marijuana and parole provisions "unwelcome surprises."

‘I Never Saw a Kingpin in Prison’

The Rockefeller laws were born in 1973, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, pondering another run at the Republican presidential nomination, was trying to position himself as "tough on crime." Nearly 30 years later, they remain among the toughest in the nation. Michigan and Texas give comparable prison terms for possession of around a pound of heroin or cocaine.

Ironically, four ounces of cocaine or heroin was a significant amount of drugs in 1973. Cocaine sold for $100 a gram, at a time when the minimum wage was $70 to $80 a week and you could rent an apartment for $100 a month in New York’s poorer neighborhoods. (Tenant/Inquilino readers don’t need to be reminded of Rockefeller’s disastrous attempt to eliminate rent controls.) And with street heroin as little as 3% pure, four ounces of heroin could have been worth thousands of dollars.

The laws did little to stop the drug market. Heroin resurged in the late ‘70s, and crack flooded the city a decade later. Today, the retail price of cocaine is around $40 a gram, and street heroin is as much as 70% pure. But they did pack the state’s prisons; 31% of the state’s prisoners are drug offenders. The increase in the state’s annual prison spending between 1988 and 1998--in fact, the roughly $700 million cost of locking up drug offenders--almost exactly matches its cuts in funding the State University of New York system. Today, Deborah Small-Peterson told a Harlem community forum last February, more black men go to the state’s 71 prisons than graduate from SUNY’s 34 four-year colleges.

Government officials are uncomfortable trying to account for why drug prisoners are almost all of color; blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs at pretty much the same rate as whites. "In our office, we don’t know what color the defendant is," says de Bourbon. "We only put in prison people who are convicted," says Quartararo.

The 15-to-lifers get the most publicity, and the DAs argue that the laws are snaring big-time dealers, but most of New York’s drug prisoners are hard-core small-timers. "I never saw a kingpin in prison," says Anthony Papa, who served 12 years of a 15-year sentence for cocaine before being granted clemency by Pataki. Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years of a 20-to-life sentence for delivering cocaine, says most of the women she was in with were users or mules. Terrence Stevens, wheelchair-bound by muscular dystrophy, says that the prisoners he was in with at Green Haven came mainly from a handful of New York City’s poor neighborhoods--Jamaica, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem.

"We’re not saying we didn’t do anything wrong," Bartlett told protesters outside the Queens County courthouse Feb. 28. "What we’re saying is that the time doesn’t fit the crime."