‘A New Day’

With Silver’s Support, New York Gets Best Chance to Fix Rockefeller Drug Laws

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said last week he wants to move quickly to reform the harrowing Rockefeller drug laws. Silver told the Voice he plans to support legislation in the next session that would return discretion to judges, alleviate the mandatory minimums that now send possessors of small amounts of drugs to jail for 15 years or more, and offer a rehab alternative for the higher-level offenders who are now sent straight to jail.

But only with cooperation from all corners, Silver said, can the state ever shake off the decades-old code, which even some of its Republican authors have called a failure. "The thing with this issue is consensus," he said. "The governor has talked about modifying the Rockefeller drug laws. Joe Bruno has talked about it. It's time everybody got together and did it. It's just a matter of doing it."

New York State Assembly Speaker Silver: Reforming New York drug laws is "just a matter of doing it."
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
New York State Assembly Speaker Silver: Reforming New York drug laws is "just a matter of doing it."

"I believe the drug war is a new form of Jim Crow, warehousing black young adults in prison or on probation."

Silver's stance should spark encouragement—and surprise—among the huge anti-Rockefeller network of activists, legislators, judges, and religious leaders. Assembly members say bills to repeal or reform the drug laws last year stagnated in committee, largely because Silver refused to move on the issue. Silver blames the governor's insistence on tying reform to the elimination of parole.

The speaker's newly stated intention to do something soon is just one more dose of hope for the next legislature, which many predict will be the first to dramatically alter the laws since they were passed in 1973.

Afraid of being labeled weak on crime, many politicians have been reluctant to push for relaxing the Rockefeller code. That fear appears to be waning. Though bills for reform or repeal have continued to die slow, silent deaths in committee, each year more legislators sign on. Last session, over 55 put their names to Rockefeller reform. Their ranks may grow; last month the nonprofit Committee for Modern Courts reported that 80 percent of the legislative candidates who responded to its survey favor some kind of reform. In June, state chief judge Judith S. Kaye announced sweeping plans to expand the number of nonviolent drug defendants routed into treatment programs.

Kaye's agenda depends on reform-minded lawmakers like Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat who plans to introduce—for the third year in a row—a bill calling for an end to Rockefeller. "I think we're going to have a bill this year," says Aubry, who stresses that any reform must be retroactive to cover the thousands already convicted. "We just need to have folks stop and say this is not where we ought to be, to think about who we're locking up."

Much of the attention this swelling Rockefeller reform movement has received, and even the cause's acceptability as a mainstream political issue, stems from the work of tireless grassroots activists, who have beaten the drum in a series of statewide lobbying efforts and protests over the past few years.

"We will not be satisfied until there's across-the-board change in the law," says Randy Credico, of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which is in touch with 1000 families of prisoners locked away under Rockefeller. "The movement is too big right now. If there's not a big change, we'll keep mobilizing. We want this fully up to judicial discretion, to take it out of the hands of the prosecutors. We want to see a major overhaul in approach, to treat it as a health issue in the state rather than a criminal issue.

"People are fed up," he says. "This is a new day. People are mobilizing. The word is going to get out."

Meanwhile, new players are stepping onto the floor. A few weeks ago, an interfaith group called Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy held its first ever New York City conference at the Auburn Theological Seminary, with more than 40 leaders from churches, synagogues, and mosques across the state.

The Reverend Howard Moody, a longtime activist and one of the stalwarts of the religious left, founded the group four years ago. It now has nearly 700 members across the country. "The idea was to help clergy people understand what the moral dimension of the drug war is," says Moody, "especially since a lot of these things are labeled moralistically."

Moody got involved with the issue of drug addiction in the late 1950s, when he began working out of his parish in Greenwich Village, Judson Memorial Church, with neighborhood teenagers hooked on heroin, trying to help them as they peregrinated through the revolving door of jails, courtrooms, and hospitals. In the early '70s, he bent the ear of anyone he could find to tell them not to pass Rockefeller. "This law is a worse curse than the drug," he says, noting statistics that show that over 94 percent of the drug offenders in New York State prisons are black and Latino. "I believe the drug war is a new form of Jim Crow, warehousing black young adults in prison or on probation. I believe it has the same effect. It's another form of controlling the black population, black and Latino.

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