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.

Some experts believe that the judicial system is stacked against minorities, particularly those who are poor, even after they are arrested. While 94 per cent of people in prison under the Rockefeller drug laws are minorities, only 85 per cent of people indicted for drug felonies are African American or Latino, according to a 1997 report by Human Rights Watch.

The factors that determine the fate of people apprehended by the police include whether the cops decide to make an arrest or give a desk appearance ticket, if the defendant can afford a good attorney, and how much support he or she gets from friends and family. This level of support can, in turn, influence how plea negotiations proceed as well as whether bail is set and how high it is. Charles Adler, a veteran defense attorney and critic of the Rockefeller drug laws, says, "There are seven or eight places from the initial confrontation with the police before you get to sentencing, and at each of them there's a skewing based on racial or class biases."

Other, less tangible factors include the defendant's appearance. "If he goes to a trial, what does he look like to the jury?" asks Adler. "Does he look frightening or does he look benign? A person who's brought from the jail every day even if he has civilian clothes doesn't look the same as the person who got up and took a shower and had scrambled eggs and coffee before coming to court."

Clemente had twice been arrested but never sent to prison when he got his 15-years-to-life sentence for drug possesion. Still, the former college student believes race played a role in determining the outcome of his case. "Had I been white, I think the whole arrest and search and seizure would have been thrown out and the case would've fallen," says Clemente, an African American. "I think somewhere down the line, a deal would've been made. Sombody would've said, 'This guy's got a future. Let's give him probation. Let's not mess his future up."'

When hundreds of white college kids began streaming into New York state prisons in the mid 1970s, there was a public outcry and the laws were changed. At that time, possession of more than a quarter ounce of marijuana was a felony. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who was elected to the state legislature in 1970, recalls, "You had college students with otherwise clean records going to state prison because the local district attorney did a raid on campus and found a collection of seeds in somebody's drawer."

The group shouting the loudest about the injustice of the marijuana laws was the state's Parent-Teacher Association. In 1977, legislators passed a bill decriminalizing pot. Possessing less than seven-eighths of an ounce of marijuana is now a "violation" and not technically a crime. Gottfried, who sponsored this legislation and was the chair of the Assembly Codes Committee, says, "If the marijuana laws had not been ruining the lives of a great many middle- and upper-income white kids, I don't think the legislation would have passed."

Jan Warren had never even heard of the Rockefeller drug laws in 1986, when she agreed to carry eight ounces of cocaine from Newark to Rochester. The threat of a lengthy prison sentence clearly did not stop her from agreeing to work as a drug mule. Four months pregnant at the time, Warren, then 35, was supposed to get $2000 for transporting $15,000 worth of drugs. Instead, the first-time offender got a prison sentence of 15 years to life.

Warren is just one of hundreds of drug mules imprisoned under the Rockefeller drug laws. Sister Marion Defeis, a chaplain at the women's jail on Rikers Island, started rallying support for these women several years ago after meeting so many with similiar stories. Women were frequently caught at JFK airport, trying to smuggle drugs from Colombia or the Dominican Republic. "Many of the women were claiming they were coerced or trickedinto bringing in drugs," says Defeis. "What the women did for the most part was they went before a judge, and said they were guilty when they were innocent because they didn't want to get a sentence of 25 years to life."

Once arrested, these women are often at a disadvantage in negotiating with prosecutors. They tend to be at the bottom of the drug-gang hierarchy, and so they are not desirable informants. "If I'd been in a position to offer them something good that they could sink their teeth into, then I would never have gone to prison," says Warren, now 46, whose most serious crime before her drug arrest was a traffic ticket.

It is not known how many of the 2108 women in prison for drug crimes at the end of 1997 were mules. But it is clear that women are disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller drug laws. There are now 3628 women in New York state prisons, up from 397 in 1973. Sixty per cent of these women are in for drug charges compared with 32 per cent of men. An estimated 75 per cent of these female inmates have children.

Leah Bundy may know better than anyone the effects of incarcerating mothers. When she was 14 years old, her mother went to prison for murder. "I was a child running wild," says Bundy, 29, who grew up in the Bronx. "I was really angry and upset with her. We had a good rapport and then it was demolished." Bundy stayed in her childhood home with her mother's boyfriend. But, she says, "I had no direction and no parental guidance. I raised myself."

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