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New York drops ‘the Rock’– Rockefeller penalties

By Anthony Papa, Drug Policy Alliance*

October 7, 2009 was an historic date for New York; Rockefeller Drug Law reforms kicked in, setting in motion the release of 1,500 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The new law restores judicial discretion to judges, who can again decide if people should get treatment for addiction instead of a jail cell. I went to Brooklyn’s Supreme Court and attended a public event to mark the milestone. The courtroom was full of activists, politicians and service providers who have been working for years to make this reform happen.

As an activist who has felt the sting of the Rockefeller laws firsthand — serving 12 years under a 15-years-to-life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense — I understand the full meaning of these changes. For years the Rockefeller Drug Laws became a political hot potato that was thoroughly debated, but nothing was ever done. Bills were submitted, arguments were made and each political party blamed the other for the impasse. In the meantime, those imprisoned were rotting away in the gulags of New York State. No better off were the family members of the incarcerated, whose hopes and aspirations slowly died as nothing was done.

Gov. David Paterson deserves thanks and praise for getting the job done. He has worked tirelessly, first as a state senator from Harlem and then as governor, to make these reforms happen. He said that “today was a day for second chances.” For me, the governor’s statement summed up the purpose of the new reforms. For years the Rockefeller Drug Laws were a symbol of a purely punitive approach to the problems of the drug war in New York State, one based on the archaic and outdated criminal justice mentality of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” Under Paterson’s guidance, New York has abandoned that failed strategy and committed itself to a new approach that emphasizes addiction treatment not incarceration.

Now that the laws have been reformed, we have to make sure the changes are done right. Advocates and service providers have been working diligently to prepare for implementation. Legal aid and public defender agencies are providing legal counsel. Hundreds of social service agencies around the state have volunteered to provide a broad range of services to individuals who will be released from prison as a result of drug law reform.

In NY City alone, more than 100 social service groups have agreed to work with legal aid and public defender agencies to provide services like housing, job training and drug treatment to people returning from prison in the course of reform. For 35 years, New York was known as the state with the worst drug laws. It’s time to make it known for having the best practices, based on public health and safety.

* Anthony Papa is the author of “15 To Life” and a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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