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Harsh New York Rockefeller Drug Laws Turn 30: Hip Hop Pioneer Russell Simmons & Anthony Papa Who Served 12 Years for a First-Time Offense Call for Repeal of the Laws

May 08, 2003
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Three decades ago today, New York became the first state in the nation to require harsh prison sentences for all drug offenders.

The new laws were pushed through the state legislature in 1973 by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller.

The laws require a minimum sentence of 15 years for minor possession of drugs. Enforcement of the laws rarely hit drug kingpins. Instead, judges were forced to imprison mostly first-time, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Most of them are poor, most are people of color.

Dozens of other states and the federal government rushed to adopt their own versions of the Rockefeller drug laws when New York State set the precedent.

Today, New York and California alone retain their mandatory minimum sentences.

The movement to scrap the laws is continuing to grow. Last year, former New York Senator John Dunne appeared in a TV commercial. He said: "In 1973, I sponsored the Rockefeller drug laws, which have been a well-documented failure."

  • Anthony Papa, was convicted of a first-time, non-violent drug possession charge in 1985 under the tough anti-drug laws signed by Governor Rockefeller which left the judge no choice but to impose a harsh prison sentence of 15 Years to Life. At the time, Papa, married with one daughter. Papa spent the next 12 years behind bars at Sing Sing prison. During that time, he earned degrees in behavioral science, theology and paralegal studies. He also learned to paint. Papa became an accomplished and acclaimed artist, painting a powerful collection of images relating to his prison experience. One of his pieces, "15 Years to Life," was exhibited at the Whitney Museum.
  • Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records and one of the most successful recording executives, producer, promoters in the hip hop world. Last year he helped form the Hip-hop Summit Action Network.
  • Randy Credico, director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.

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