Seven Years on the Sidewalk

Randy Credico on the job, outside Queens Criminal Court
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein

One afternoon last week, Randy Credico sat in a friend's apartment in the West Village and sifted through a plastic bin packed with photos. There were hundreds of them—each representing another chapter in his seven-year struggle to convince New York legislators to change the state's ultra-punitive drug laws. There Credico was, holding a press conference in front of City Hall, protesting outside a Pataki fundraiser at the Yale Club, rallying on the steps of the state capitol in Albany.

"I don't like looking at these pictures," he says, "because I realize how much time has gone by." Indeed, Credico, now 47, looks much younger in these early photos—fewer wrinkles and more boyish features. "Who thought it was going to be seven years?" he says. "I thought it was going to take a year, and the laws would be changed. I was naive. I thought it was crystal clear that the laws needed to be changed."

He knew little about New York politics in early 1998, when he helped organize his first vigil to protest the state's drug laws, which were named for their creator, Nelson Rockefeller. Scheduled to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the laws, the event was held on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Center. Some of the rally's organizers thought it should be a one-time event; Credico disagreed. He packed up the posters and banners, brought them home, and over the next several years, organized more than 100 events.

On December 7, the state legislature finally voted to change the laws by softening some of the most severe penalties. While other activists received more attention in the media—most notably Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Recordings, who organized an anti-drug-law rally in the summer of 2003—Credico played a crucial, behind-the-scenes role. "Randy Credico really, really, really deserves a lot of credit," says State Senator Thomas Duane, a Democrat from Chelsea.

News of the modest changes in the laws did not put Credico in a jubilant mood. "The whole thing was a small payoff for seven years of street work," he says. He supports full repeal of the laws—dismantling mandatory sentencing and allowing judges to determine the severity of each defendant's punishment. For now, mandatory sentencing remains intact, with judges handing out prison time based on the weight of the drugs involved.

Will Credico continue his battle? Duane hopes so. He called Credico last week and told him, "Please don't give up." To keep chipping away at the laws, Duane says, "We're really going to have to ramp it up." Credico, a stand-up comedian, insists he plans to quit being an activist and instead revive his comic career. (He was once a regular at clubs in Las Vegas, and performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at age 27.)

But giving up his addiction to the political fight will not be easy. All last week, his cell phone was buzzing with reporters looking for prisoners' relatives to interview, and with relatives asking when their loved ones will get released. For some, the news was good. If a first-time inmate is serving a sentence for an A-1-level felony, the changes are retroactive. Inmates with sentences of 15 to life can now apply to a judge to have their minimum sentence reduced to eight years.

The news for others was not good; prisoners convicted of a lesser B-level felony cannot be resentenced. Credico knows many mothers of inmates in this predicament. "It's hard to leave women like Flora King and Cheri O'Donoghue, both of whom were up in Albany this year," he says. "I hate to tell them that it's all over, that I'm not going to be able to do this next year. I always say it's all over, but I guess it's like being in the mob: You're in for life."

For years, it seemed Credico would do just about anything to get the drug laws repealed. Take, for example, his most recent trips to Albany. When 10 state legislators met this summer to hold public discussions about the drug laws, Credico made six or seven treks north—showing up with family members in the hearing room every day. He sat prisoners' relatives in the front row, a few feet from the legislators, and armed each of them with a poster.

It was a sympathetic sight—elderly women, some hobbling in with canes, another in a wheelchair, all clutching oversize pictures of their imprisoned kids. When Credico had trouble collecting a crowd for these trips, he didn't cancel. Instead, he recruited two older blind women he knew, both African American, and he parked them in the front row too, with a poster on each of their laps. Never mind that neither of them had a relative in prison. "I thought it would add to the panache," Credico says. "All's fair in love and war, and this was a war."

He works for the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice and helped start the Mothers of the Disappeared, a group of prisoners' relatives. But he has no staff, no office, no job description. All he really has are his zeal and his tenacity. In the past, activists fought against the drug laws using words and numbers: op-eds, reports, editorials, statistics. Credico brought families into this public debate.

Over the last seven years, he has generated more than 100 media stories about drug prisoners serving at least 15 to life. He can rattle off the cell phone numbers of reporters at a dozen news outlets, including The New York Times, El Diario, and the Times Union of Albany. Now, however, some of his best examples of injustices have been eliminated.

"You're not going to get these heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stories like Melita Oliveira anymore," he says. Oliveira, a single mother of five children, was sentenced to 15 years to life after she got caught at JFK International Airport with a package of cocaine. She said she thought the package contained diamonds. Credico convinced the Times and El Diario to cover her case.

Now Credico says that if he continues his work, he will shift his focus to people convicted of B-level felonies, who are 5,156 of the state's 15,600 drug prisoners. Sale of just one vial of crack constitutes a B felony. The new mandatory minimum sentence for this crime is three and a half years—down from four and a half to nine years—for individuals with a prior nonviolent felony on their record.

In recent years, Credico has been collecting cases of individuals he thinks are doing too much time for a B felony. These include John Martino—59 years old, first-time offender, Vietnam vet—who is in prison with a sentence of 15 to 30 years for selling drugs. Martino's case stands out, but Credico admits it's hard to find sympathetic cases of people convicted of B felonies.

"How do you keep the fire burning here?" he says. "Now that they took out a lot of the steam from this movement, how do you keep the fire going? You have to look for these B cases, and they may be few and far between. Let's be honest—who's going to be sympathetic to someone doing three to six years for selling drugs? I'm sympathetic, but I don't know if it's going to get a lot of people off their asses and up to Albany to demonstrate."

New York's laws remain the toughest in the nation. Politicians eager to see more reform hope Credico will continue his activism. On January 6, Senator Duane is convening a hearing in Albany to assess the state of the drug laws. Its success will depend in part on whether Credico shows up with a busload of good examples of how the laws are still unjust.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do," Credico says. "Obviously this needs a lot of energy. I thought it was going to be a one-year job, and it turned out to be seven fucking years. I don't know what direction to go. I'm at a huge fork in the road."

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