The Reluctant Activist

One mother's unlikely education in New York's Rockefeller drug laws

Cheri O'Donoghue usually spends her days inside an office in Manhattan, working as an editor at a glossy magazine. But last Wednesday, the mother of two took the day off from work and, at 7:30 a.m., she boarded a bus to Albany. Almost every passenger on the bus had a family member who had been imprisoned for a drug crime. Cheri settled into a seat near the back.

In the last row was Wanda Best, whose husband, Darryl, is in the third year of a 15-to-life sentence for his first offense. James Gantt, 84, sat near the front; his son Ronald was recently released after spending 14 years in prison. By now, most of these activists had made many trips to Albany. They greeted one another with a hug.

Cheri sat alone, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist. She had never imagined she would someday become an anti-drug-law activist. In fact, until seven months ago, she had never even heard of the Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate hefty sentences for drug sales or possession. She did not know these laws are 31 years old, or that they are among the toughest in the country.

But then her son, Ashley, was arrested, and she got her first lesson in how New York's drug laws work. Last October, Ashley, then 20, traveled from New York City to Oneida County with a package of cocaine. He planned to sell it to two students at Hamilton College. At the time, he didn't know they had been arrested a few days earlier with seven grams of coke. To reduce their own punishment, these two 18-year-old freshmen had agreed to set up an acquaintance: Ashley.

Outside the Amtrak station in Utica, the police arrested Ashley with 72 grams of cocaine. The two students did not go to prison; their cases have been sealed. Ashley pleaded guilty to a B-level felony and received a prison term of seven to 21 years.

Cheri heard about the Rockefeller drug laws for the first time when Ashley's lawyer mentioned them on the phone. To learn more, she scanned The New York Timesand typed "Rockefeller drug laws" into Google. Then she sent letters to Governor Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bruno, Assembly Speaker Silver, and also to Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who has led the charge to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Aubry's office hooked her up with a local activist group, and now she was riding along with the group to Albany.

"I'm a private person, and I don't like doing things like this," she said as the bus barreled along the New York State Thruway. "But because it's my son, I have to do it." About the state's drug laws, she said, "I never would've known about them if this hadn't happened."

At noon, Cheri and the other activists entered the New York State Capitol and filed into a hearing room with crimson walls and a royal blue carpet. Cheri found a seat near the front; her son's face stared up from the chair beside her. The night before, her husband had made a cardboard poster with their son's picture. It showed Ashley's hair braided in cornrows, and his lips curled in a smile. Cheri had written his name with a red marker at the bottom of the poster.

Ten legislators sat around a table at the front of the room. These five senators and five assembly members had been charged with trying to come to an agreement on a bill that would reform the drug laws. Today's hearing marked the first-ever convening of a conference committee to discuss the Rockefeller drug laws. Eighty-five people had shown up to witness the historic event.

The co-chairs of the committee were Assemblyman Aubry of Queens, who used to oversee a drug treatment program, and Senator Dale Volker of western New York, an ex-cop who has seven prisons in his district. Cheri listened as the legislators staked out their positions, paying close attention whenever the conversation turned to B felonies.

The debate during last year's legislative session focused largely on those drug prisoners with the longest sentences: people convicted of A-1 felonies. These men and women all have sentences of at least 15 years to life. Last year, state legislators created a new provision, which enables A-1 inmates to reduce their minimum sentences by up to a third if they follow the rules and take part in certain programs. As of last count, 56 A-1 drug prisoners had been released; 474 are still locked up.

This year, there is increased attention on inmates convicted of B felonies, who make up 5,263 of the state's 16,397 drug prisoners. "It's the issue of the class B felons that I think are really the tone and the credo of the need to reform the Rockefeller drug laws," said Senator David Paterson of Harlem.

The hearing lasted a little longer than an hour, and by 1:30 the room was empty. In the hallway outside, the activists held a press conference, with each family member telling his or her story. When it was Cheri's turn, she stepped forward, clutching Ashley's poster in front of her. "I just want to say that the Rockefeller drug laws need to be changed," she said, her voice strong and confident. "When you send someone to prison, you send their entire family to prison, in a sense. This is a young man who has a lot of potential. He doesn't deserve this."

The reporters scribbled down her words. Cheri felt a little better, and a little more hopeful, than she had felt in months.

 
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