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.

Bundy got the chance to live with her mother again seven years ago. Their reunion took place inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where Bundy was sent after getting a 15-years-to-life sentence for drug possession. She was with Christopher Clemente when cops burst into his brother's apartment and discovered the sizeable stash of cocaine. Bundy was the girlfriend of Clemente's brother, but says she was not involved in his drug-dealing operation.

Bundy worries that her own children will continue the family's cycle of incarceration. For Elaine Bartlett, this worry has already become reality. Bartlett was raising four children in a Harlem housing project when she got sent to prison at age 26. From prison, she has watched her son Jamal follow in her footsteps. Jamal, who was six when his mother was incarcerated, is now at Attica Correctional Facility serving a two-to-six-year sentence for drug sales.

"The only thing you have to offer them is a visiting room," says Bartlett, about raising children from prison. "They get angry, and they have every right to be angry. The younger they are, the easier it is because they don't really feel the impact of it. But when they start growing up and being teenagers, it becomes harder. No mother wants to see their child make the mistake that they made or wind up in jail."

If you want to see how New York's soaring incarceration rate affects the families left behind, go to Columbus Circle on a weekend night. Thousands of women and children flock there--armed with bags stuffed full of edible treats--to board buses that will take them to upstate correctional facilities. The weariness on their faces betrays the strain family members endure when they have to care for the kids of an incarcerated mother or stretch their resources to compensate for the lost income of an imprisoned caretaker. The families sleep overnight on the bus, visit during the day, and then return to the city. Depending on which prison they go to, the trip can take up to 12 hours each way.

On a recent Friday evening, five dogged activists showed up to publicize a vigil being held at Rockefeller Center on the 25th anniversary of the drug laws. The slogan on their pamphlets was "Too Much Time for Non-Violent Crime!" The activists spoke to the mothers, wives, girlfriends, and children of inmates about the injustices of the drug laws. Led by the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, this coalition of activists hopes to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws.

Even the state's highest-ranking judge would like to see change. "We are incarcerating so many people who are low-level substance abusers," says Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. "I think we need a more discerning remedy, instead of putting away so many people for lengthy periods of incarceration--especially young people, who are going in substance abusers and coming out hardened criminals and substance abusers still."

When he was elected in 1994, Governor George Pataki announced plans to reform the Rockefeller drug laws. He has yet to deliver on this promise, though legislators tinkered with the state's sentencing laws in 1995. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reform is the clout of upstate Republican legislators. Few politicians publicly defend the laws, but many have benefited from the boom in the state's prison population. Every time a new prison is about to be built, legislators scramble to get it in their district. "The dirty little secret in Albany is that prisons are the economic development engine for upstate New York," says Vince Marrone, a longtime drug-policy advocate.

Meanwhile, inmates incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws watch the years roll by. "I first came here in 1984, and the women I met then are still coming here," says Bartlett, a first-time offender who is serving a 20-years-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills for a 1984 drug sale conviction. "There are women here who have done my whole sentence with me on an installment plan, coming back and forth to prison. They'll say to me, 'Hi Elaine, how you doing? You still here? Did you go home?' I'll say, 'No, I didn't go home. I'm still sitting here.' Even people with long rap sheets and career criminals--people who have been coming here all their life--don't get the time we get for a first offense. If I'd killed somebody, I'd be home by now."

A vigil for prisoners incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws will be held at Rockefeller Center (Fifth Avenue and 50th Street) on May 8 at noon. For information, call the William Moses Kunstler Fund for RacialJustice at 924-6980.

The Rockefeller drug laws established mandatory sentences for the sale and possession of narcotics. A conviction for the highest-level offense--selling at least two ounces or possessing at least four ounces of cocaine or heroin--will result in a prison sentence of at least 15 years. (Two ounces of heroin can be divided among hundreds of glassine envelopes. The equivalent of two ounces of crack is between 400 and 640 vials--presumably more than needed for personal use.)

Below, sentences for some well-known violent criminals.

Robert Chambers
Killed girlfriend Jennifer Levin
Sentence: 5 to 15 years

Joel Steinberg
Crime: Killed daughter Lisa
Sentence: 8 to 25 years

Awilda Lopez
Crime: Beat daughter Elisa Izquierdo to death
Sentence: 15 years to life

Amy Fisher
Crime: Shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco
Sentence: 5 to 15 years

Dr. Malcolm Scoon
Crime: Shook baby daughter to death
Sentence: 2 to 6 years

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