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.

But perhaps you do not want to plead guilty--maybe you're stubborn, maybe your lawyer tells you to reject the prosecutors' offer, maybe you're innocent. So you go to trial. Here, the stakes are high. A minority are convicted of the highest-level drug felony and wind up serving 15 years or more. (There were 631 such inmates at the end of 1997.) More likely, you will be convicted of a lesser crime, like selling a half-ounce of cocaine, which has a mandatory sentence ranging from three years to life.

Suddenly, you have plenty of time to ponder your decisions. Just ask first-time offender Robert Sanchez, who turned down a plea offer of six years to life because he thought he could escape prison time. "When you're 19 years old and you hear the word life and you never had handcuffs slapped on you and have never seen the inside of a precinct, you're scared," says Sanchez, 30, who is imprisoned at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, serving a 15-years-to-life sentence for drug possession. "I look back now, and I think I should've copped out."

The Rockefeller drug laws were supposed to dismantle large-scale drug operations and toss the dealers behind bars. By some measures, they have been an overwhelmingly success. After all, they put away more than 20,000 of the state's current inmates, if you include all the drug offenders locked up under the Second Felony Offender Law, which was also passed in 1973 and mandates prison sentences for two-time felons.

Robert Silbering, who oversaw the country's busiest drug prosecution unit when he headed the city's Office of Special Narcotics from 1991 until last November, credits the Rockefeller drug laws with helping drive down the violent crime rate. "Did the Rockefeller drug laws deter use?" he asks. "No. But that's not to say as a sentencing tool that they're not effective."

Prosecutors like the laws because the harsh mandatory sentences provide a powerful incentive to get defendants to plead guilty. "If you didn't have laws like the Rockefeller drug laws, you might have judicial gridlock because these laws induce people to plead guilty and not go to trial," Silbering says. The lawsalso induce people to cooperate and help prosecutors fight drug kingpins. Even Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who supports reforming the laws, says that without them, "I think the ability of multi-kilo dealers to move large quantities of drugs would have been greatly enhanced."

But everyone--judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys--seems to agree that the success of these laws has come at a high price, both in dollars and human costs. The Rockefeller drug laws have locked up the youth of entireinner-city communities while costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year. Steering more addicts into treatment would cost taxpayers far less--an average of $20,000 annually per residential bed, versus the $30,000 for a year's prison stay. Brown, who fought the passage of these laws in 1973, when he was the city's lobbyist in Albany, says, "I think in the long run if we'd spent the kind of money we spent enforcing the Rockefeller drug laws on things like prevention and treatment and education, we'd be better off."

Silbering is less willing to criticize. "There have been a few cases where someone maybe shouldn't have gotten 15 to life or 25 to life," he admits. "But to say this law should be thrown out is not right."

The former top narcotics prosecutor would rather talk about how the laws helped crush drug gangs than dwell on injustices. "You might say, 'Geez, I made the guy an offer and he turned it down,"' says Silbering. "What more can I do? You know, these guys aren't princes anyway. We're not talking about convicting priests and rabbis here. We're talking about convicting guys who are making a living selling drugs. He probably doesn't deserve 15 to life, but maybe he deserves four or five years in jail. But he wanted it this way. He turned down the deal."

Critics of the Rockefeller drug laws charge that their impact extends far beyond a few individuals. They have put thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars, including many junkies struggling to support their habits. Ironically, the felons with the longest prison sentences are not always the ones at the top of the drug trade, since mid-and upper-level dealers can trade information for less prison time. Almost everybody who gets the raw end of the deal under these laws is African American or Latino. Even though studies show that the majority of drug users are white, 94 per cent of people incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws are minorities.

Law-enforcement strategies partly account for this discrepancy. "Most centers of drug distribution are located in minority areas--Washington Heights, East New York, Jamaica, South Bronx, Bed-Stuy," says Silbering. "Most white drug use, which is casual drug use, is really done in somebody's home, maybe in a bar, but the police are going to center their resources obviously against those who are distributing drugs."

In impoverished, drug-infested neighborhoods, the lure of easy money can seem irresistible. Earning $50 working as a lookout or courier may be a hard offer to refuse, especially if you are an addict. But it carries very tough penalties. Elaine Bartlett learned this the hard way. "What happens with the blacks and Latinos is that you can't come out of your house and go to the playground--you can't go to school, you can't go to the store--without the drug selling being right there," says Bartlett, 40, who grew up in Harlem and went to prison for selling four ounces of cocaine. "Most of our candy stores have drugs in them, and you can come right out of your house and see people getting high. It becomes normal. I think that's how so many people get caught up."

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