The good news rippled down the aisle of the bus as it headed along the highway from Albany to New York City on January 3. Drug prisoners’ relatives had boarded the bus outside the state capitol, where they had spent the day rallying against New York’s strict drug laws. Now everyone was talking about governor George Pataki’s state of the state speech and his promise to reform New York’s so-called Rockefeller drug laws. The activists, it seemed, would soon have something to celebrate.
Over the last three years, these mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children of drug prisoners have built a small but scrappy movement. They have held vigils at City Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the State Capitol. They have chanted, “Too much time for nonviolent crime!” outside Pataki fundraisers and the Manhattan office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. And along the way, they have shared their stories with every reporter who will listen.
These prisoners’ relatives have been pushing legislators to repeal the state’s drug laws and restore judicial discretion, so that judges can decide drug offenders’ punishment. New York’s drug laws, signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 and known as the Rockefeller drug laws, set up mandatory prison sentences. The top-level felony, known as a “Class A-1” drug offense, involves selling two or more ounces or possessing four or more ounces of a narcotic like heroin or cocaine. Anyone convicted of an A-1 drug offense receives a mandatory prison sentence of at least 15-years-to-life. Drug offenders convicted of carrying or selling lesser amounts receive shorter mandatory sentences.
Almost everyone accused of an A-1 drug felony—as well as almost everyone charged with a lower-level drug crime—tries to avoid a trial and a lengthy mandatory prison term by pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. While there are more than 21,000 drug prisoners in New York State, there are only 618 Class A-1 drug offenders. Nevertheless, Rockefeller drug law critics have sought to sway public opinion by focusing media attention on these A-1 cases, since they are the most sympathetic. Nearly all of the family members who regularly appear at drug law vigils have relatives who are A-1 drug felons.
Judging from Pataki’s plan to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, the governor appears to have heard their stories. His 10-part proposal includes shrinking the mandatory sentences for first-time A-1 drug felons from 15-years-to-life to 10-years-to-life. He has proposed giving judges more leeway to steer some low-level drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. And he has included a retroactivity plan that would permit current A-1 drug prisoners to appeal for early release.
When they heard this part of Pataki’s plan, many prisoners’ relatives-turned-activists cheered. Such a proposal, if passed by the legislature, could shave a few years off their loved ones’ prison sentences, reducing them to 10-years-to-life or eight-and-one-third-years-to-life, depending on their prior record. According to prison officials, 506 of the state’s 618 A-1 drug offenders would be eligible for a reduced sentence.
But not everyone is pleased. By addressing the concerns of the Rockefeller drug prisoners with the longest sentences, Pataki’s plan would strip Rockefeller drug law critics of their most powerful weapon: the stories of first-time offenders serving at least 15 years in prison. “It’s a terrible bill,” says Randy Credico, who organizes protests for drug prisoners’ relatives as head of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. “It is not reform. It takes care of a few people, but 20,000 people will be left hanging. It’s not fair if you only deal with A-1 felons. You have to deal with all the other categories.”
When Mary Mortimore, a rally regular, heard the details of Pataki’s proposed reform, she too was unhappy. “It’s not going to benefit my children at all, so I’m depressed about that,” says Mortimore, 54, who has two sons in prison serving time for B-level drug felonies, which would not be covered by Pataki’s proposed retroactivity plan. One is serving an 11-to-23-year sentence, while the other is doing 15-to-30 years. “My kids have been locked up for 10 years,” Mortimore says, “I wonder if I’m going to be alive to see them hit the streets.”
If the state legislature does pass a drug law reform bill, there is no guarantee that it will resemble Pataki’s proposal. Nonetheless, Credico is already scrambling to ensure that his group does not lose momentum. “I’m going to start breaking out the B felonies—people doing eight-and-one-third to 25 years. It’s the second wave. Those families would be so angry if the A-1’s got some relief and they didn’t. It would bring out fresh troops.”
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