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.”
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.
“I hope to stir up their compassion a little bit,” he says, referring to the clergy at the forum. “I hope they will go to their congregations and preach sermons on it and have discussions on it with their communities.”
Other activists are also sharpening their weapons. The Kunstler Fund plans a major rally in Albany in early January, the day of the state of the state address, and will hold demonstrations outside Silver’s and Pataki’s offices throughout the year. The Correctional Association of New York has scheduled two rallies for March, a lobbying day on the 20th for kids whose parents are locked up, and a day of statewide action on the 27th.
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who plans to reintroduce her bill to repeal the law this year, will begin holding hearings on Rockefeller with State Senator Tom Duane in New York City and Albany in the next few months. Barbara Clark, who heads the bipartisan legislative women’s caucus, says they’ll try to schedule a meeting with the governor’s criminal justice officials in November to discuss their research into how the law has hurt women in particular.
Silver says he has asked Governor George Pataki to launch a bipartisan task force to explore common ground on Rockefeller reform. Pataki, he says, expressed interest in such a committee, but has not yet moved on putting one together. Some lawmakers say it’s time the governor stopped using the elimination of parole as a bargaining chip for reform. “That’s like the Patrick Ewing-Glen Rice trade,” says Assemblyman Keith Wright. “It doesn’t help anybody.”
Still, in phone calls last week, many assembly and senate members confirmed the mood of action in the air. Everyone is confident. But everyone has been confident before.
“For me, this is like being a Knick fan,” says Deborah Small, of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. “You start hoping with your head held high, and you believe and believe and believe and then the endgame comes and your hopes are dashed to hell. Certainly, a broad spectrum of people are calling for it now. There are political reasons to do it, and political reasons not to do it. It’s a question of whether they will do it.”