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15 to life for a first offense?


Repeal the New York State Drug Laws


by Anthony Papa



Once again the legislature of New York State has failed to come to an agreement to change the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. According to Drug Policy Alliance, twenty-seven other states have made changes in similar laws last year, saving tax dollars and human lives. Yet, no such repeal is on the horizon in New York. Why is this so?

The dysfunctionality of the legislature was highlighted in a recent New York Times article on how, finally, for the first time, the legislature was going to open their doors so the public can view their legislative hearings, which traditionally have been held in secret. Well, they should have kept the doors closed, because now we had a chance to see politics at its worst. The Republicans and Democrats argued for hours and could not even come to an agreement on how to agree. Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, who is the co-chairman of a conference committee to change the Rockefeller Drug laws described it "as a way of setting up what is on the table in real terms so that we can know that we are getting something done." But, to people outside the loop, this is seen as the standard trend in New York State's dysfunctional political process. So many are angry at the operational quagmire that a group of protestors in wheelchairs even recently resorted to the extreme measure of barricading a group of law makers in a hearing room in Albany, forcing the Capitol police to rescue the legislators.

Repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws is an issue that has been tossed around between the legislature and the courts for the last 31 years without any change. In the early years, the legislature kept their gloves on and blamed instead the court system. They said the Rockefeller Drug Laws should be changed by the judicial process. Let the courts declare these laws unconstitutional, they cried—a convenient way to escape responsibility. The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, in turn, denied addressing the issue and sternly declared it was a matter that the legislature should decide. God forbid it was declared unconstitutional—the judicial system would be bankrupted by the thousands of lawsuits filed by criminal defendants.

After that judicial blow to the midsection, the two political parties in the legislature began duking it out, each blaming the other for not changing the laws while the governor danced around the issue. Do you blame the legislature or the governor for shedding responsibility? Who wants to get caught advocating to change an issue that could ruin an individual's career by looking "soft on crime"? And lets not forget the district attorneys, the individuals who live and die by their conviction rates, and who have been the most outspoken group in preventing any type of change.

Let's look, for a moment, at the reality of the consequences of the Rockefeller drug laws: Thousands of individuals are rotting away in prison, and thousands of families outside of the prison walls are also affected. Hey, politicians, doesn't this matter?

General Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar, recently co-authored an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for an end to the drug laws. "Driven in large measure by harsh drug laws, our prison population has grown from 200,000 to two million over the past 30 years," he wrote. "The laws enjoy little public or political support. Just about all interested parties—legislators, advocates of various persuasions, and all sectors of the criminal justice system—favor change." Ten years ago, I appeared on a television show that declared draconian drug laws were a violation of human rights with McCaffrey. At the time, I was serving a 15-to-life sentence for a first time non-violent drug crime under these laws. I remember watching the stern look on the general's face from my six-by-nine cell in Sing Sing as he declared, "you can't lock your way out of the problem." In New York, it seems that this is untrue. Since 1982, thirty-three prisons have been built in rural upstate communities, primarily in Republican districts, and filled with drug offenders. This reality is a sharp rebuttal to McCaffrey's opinion.

So what do we do to solve the problem of New York's dysfunctional political process? I think I have the answer. In 1998, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Sentencing) held a convention called "Metamorphosis" in Washington D.C. Its theme, appropriately, was change and transformation. Several speakers were former politicians who had fallen from grace, among them Webster Hubbell of the Clinton Whitewater scandal. Hubble, an associate attorney general of the Untied States wound up doing time for a white-collar crime—not serious time, but nevertheless enough to get a taste of imprisonment.

Hubbell spoke of how his thought process on the system dramatically changed while sitting in a jail cell during a prison lockdown. The federal government had just passed crack cocaine legislation, which led to several federal prisons to riot. As he sat in his cell like a caged animal, he remembered a day when he signed a similar lockdown order that affected thousands of prisoners. This road-to-Damascus experience led him to become an agent of change in seeking a better system. As he spoke, I turned to a fellow ex-prisoner and said, "This is it, this is how we change the system. We pass a law that makes it mandatory to spend some time in a jail cell before taking a political position or government office." Maybe then the system would benefit the people instead of those in power.


Anthony Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of the NY Disappeared and author of 15 To Life, to be published by Feral House in the fall of 2004. He was granted clemency in 1997. For more drug war info, go to

Posted June 14, 2004 5:30 PM






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