New York's Drug-Law Debacle

Governor Rockefeller started the war on drugs in 1973. His laws have packed prisons, cost billions, and failed to stop the drug trade. On the 25th anniversary, there's new momentum for change.

Christopher Clemente was supposed to be an Ivy League success story. But when cops busted into a Harlem apartment in 1990, they found the University of Pennsylvania sophomore tossing bags of crack vials out the window. A Bronx native who had won a scholarship to the prestigious Wharton School of Business, Clemente insisted he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He says the cocaine--plus the two handguns police found in the apartment--belonged to his drug-dealing older brother. The police arrested Clemente, then 19, on drug and weapon charges.

Seven and a half years later, Clemente is still incarcerated. His brother was arrested on drug charges, but never went to prison and was fatally shot six years ago. Convicted under New York State's strict drug laws, Clemente got slapped with a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life plus one year for gun possession. "We all make mistakes, but to take someone out of their community for so long--it kills them," says Clemente, who is now 27 and eligible for parole in 2006. "I'm losing my youth."

Had Clemente stuck up a bodega, molested a child, or assaulted a girlfriend, he likely would be out by now. If he had been caught in almost any other state, he would have received a shorter sentence. And had he been from a foreign country, state officials might have already shipped Clemente home to be set free, like the Israeli drug kingpin who previously occupied his prison cell. But since New York's drug laws rank among the nation's toughest, he will spend his entire twenties locked up.

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which falls on May 8, has reinvigorated the debate over the fate of inmates like Clemente. In 1973, former governor Nelson Rockefeller launched his own war on drugs--and started a national trend--when he signed legislation setting up mandatory sentences for defendants convicted of drug crimes. Often denounced as draconian, the laws have incarcerated thousands of people, driving up the state's prison population from 12,500 in 1973 to 69,458 today. Most of these inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, and one-third are drug offenders. In the last 15 years, the annual state prison budget has soared from $450 million to $1.7 billion. Despite this astronomical price tag, it is widely agreed that the Rockefeller drug laws have failed to stop the narcotics traffic.

For years, it has been considered political suicide to challenge any aspect of the war on drugs. But now some lawmakers are willing to take a chance on reform. A movement to change the state's drug rules has been building in recent months, fueled in part by the upcoming anniversary. Recently, 27 Democrats in the state assembly sponsored a bill to repeal the laws. This legislation is not expected to pass, but it could pave the way for compromise bills. On May 6, a high-profile, bipartisan group--including former Congressman Floyd Flake, former State Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson, Princeton University professor John DiIulio, and led by former GOP State Senator John Dunne--is announcing its support for less-radical legislation that would reform the drug laws.

"These laws are wasteful, inefficient, unjust, and marked by racial bias," says Robert Gangi, executive director for the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group that is helping lead the reform efforts. "It's time to change them."

If you are one of the 28,000 New Yorkers arrested each year and indicted for a felony drug crime, you could wind up with a lengthy prison sentence. These mandatory sentences--which range from one-to-three years to 15 years to life--are based only on the amount of drugs you allegedly sold or possessed and not on your level of involvement. A conviction for possessing at least four ounces or selling at least two ounces of heroin or cocaine will get you 15-years-to-life. It does not matter if you are a small-time dealer or a first-time courier or a longtime junkie. The Rockefeller drug laws require the judge to give you a stiff mandatory sentence if a jury finds you guilty.

Whether you go to prison--and for how long--depends partly on how you play your cards. Most likely you will plead guilty and never even have a trial. This is what nearly everyone decides to do, including 98 per cent of first-time offenders. The possibility of going to trial, losing, and getting slammed with a long stint upstate is just too terrifying to risk. Up until 1979, when legislators modified the Rockefeller drug laws, you would have had little chance to plea bargain. But now if you don't have too many crimes on your rap sheet and you aren't a drug-gang boss and you weren't caught with hundreds of kilos of cocaine in your car trunk, you will probably be offered a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser crime.

If this is your first arrest, you may get probation, avoiding prison altogether. If you're an addict, you have a slim chance of landing a coveted bed in a drug treatment program instead of a prison cell. Your odds of cutting a good deal increase if prosecutors believe you could be a helpful informant--if you are well-connected and willing to wear a microphone in order to collect evidence against other drug dealers.

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