New York Lawmakers Partially Reform Harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws

StoryDecember 08, 2004
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Three decades after the state implemented the harshest drug laws in the country, lawmakers approved reworking part of the laws Tuesday. But critics say more needs to be done. Democratic State Senator Thomas Duane from Manhattan said, “It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug law reform.” [includes rush transcript]

The New York state legislature has agreed to partially reform part of the state’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws that has imprisoned thousands of non-violent drug users over the past three decades.

While the new agreement reduces the minimum sentences of some drug offenses, critics of the drug laws said the changes in the law do not go far enough.

Critics have argued that judges should be given more discretion in sentencing and that some offenders should be allowed to avoid prison in favor of treatment. But neither of these reforms are included in the new bill.

Democratic State Senator Thomas Duane from Manhattan said “It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug law reform.”

Currently drug offenders can be sentenced 15 years-to-life. Under the proposed agreement they would be sentenced 8 to 20 years. Roughly 400 inmates serving terms of 15-years or more would be allowed to seek reduced sentences under the new changes.

  • Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for the Village Voice and author of the book Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. The book chronicles the life of Elaine Bartlett, who spent 16 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense. It was selected as a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for the Village Voice. Her book is called Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. Some of you may remember when we had Elaine and Jennifer in the studio when the book first came out. It chronicles Elaine Bartlett’s life who spent sixteen years in prison here in New York for non-violent drug offenses, and was selected as a finalist for the 2004 national book award. Welcome Jennifer.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Thank you for having me on.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this, can you call it Rockefeller drug law reform?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well I think you just call it partial reform, and that might be the best phrase, the best way to characterize it. You know it goes sort of halfway, at least it’s halfway as far as many activists were hoping, but not all the way there. One of the crucial things that didn’t happen which was always the goal of many of the activists was to put the power back in the hands of the judges to decide, judicial discretion. And now still the prosecutors are the ones who are ultimately going to be determining the length of sentences. The sentences are still mandatory in New York State.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the length? Is it alone in the country?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well there was a report that came out earlier this year that state Senator David Patterson put out showing that New York had the harshest, at that point the harshest drug laws in the country, particularly at the B level. That may no longer be true but some these sentences are still very long. First time offenders can still get eight to 20 years. OK, it’s better than15 years to life but it’s not, I think what a lot of activists had hoped for.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times quotes assembly speaker Sheldon Silver crediting a changed political landscape including the election of the new district attorney in Albany county, David Sores, who ran with the backing of the working families party on a platform seeking drug law changes. Has that made a difference?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I think that election was crucial to setting the tone for this year’s conversation. I mean it was the,–David Sores is a young, he’s a 34 year old African American former prosecutor who defeated his boss, in essence. Nobody thought he was going to win. And the fact that he did win, and he won on a campaign running against the Rockefeller drug laws, I mean it’s almost unheard of somebody would run to be district attorney by criticizing the Rockefeller drug laws, but he did win and I think it sent a message to prosecutors across the state, to DAs across the state, that you could be vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: George Pataki In his State of the State Address has said the Rockefeller drug laws have to be reformed and yet it has taken years and even this we’re still talking about putting people away for sentences that in many states do not do this, so extremely harsh sentences. What are some of the families saying of those? I know a few years ago some mothers said no, even if it would release or some family members who fight these drug laws, Mothers of the Disappeared, even if it would release our loved ones it’s this tiny percentage of the people behind bars.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, well some of the people who have loved ones who’ve done you know 10, 12 years who stand to come home are obviously very happy. But you know there’s other people, like I wrote about a woman for the Village Voice, Sharia Donahue, her son Ashley is doing 7 to 21 years in Clinton prison, first time offense, it’s a B felony. I don’t believe these laws would be retroactive for him, since it is a B level felony. And so he’s not going — even though it was his first time offense he’s still going to do the whole time. And I think there’s a sense, also there’s some thinking that’s been changing within the reform community I think initially people thought if we don’t get everything we want the first time we’re never going to get reform. And I think now people have come to think well we have to imagine it in a more incremental way. We’re going to get some reform this year, hopefully we will get more next year, and the next year. And if you think this is just a one shot deal I think it could be very disappointing but if you imagine it’s the beginning of something. It’s a beginning of dismantling or undoing the drug laws then I think that’s a different way to think about it a little bit more optimistic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you Jennifer Gonnerman for being with us. Staff writer for the Village Voice author of the book Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett.

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