Reversing Rockefeller

In 1992, Terrance Stevens was sentenced for 15 years to life under New York state's Rockefeller Drug Laws. Stevens was traveling on a Greyhound Bus to Buffalo New York City to visit relatives. He claims he was unaware that the friend he was traveling with was carrying 5 ounces of cocaine. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would have given Stevens probation, but Stevens didn't have any information to offer.

"The judge knew I didn't deserve a 15-year sentence, but he was handcuffed," Stevens says. "According to the statute, he had to sentence me to 15 years to life."

Stevens' bid in prison was particularly difficult because he has muscular dystrophy, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the neck down. New York's prison facilities weren't prepared to address all of his medical needs.

"When someone who can't even wipe their own behind is sentenced for 15 years for a nonviolent drug offense," Stevens says, "that's an indication something is wrong with our criminal-justice system." Stevens served 10 years of his sentence, which was commuted in 2001 after then-Gov. George Pataki granted clemency to several individuals imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Stevens has since dedicated his life to helping those most affected by New York's harsh drug laws. He formed an organization called In Arms Reach, which tutors children who have incarcerated parents and pays for them to visit their parents, who are often locked up in upstate prisons. Last Friday, however, New York state legislators struck a deal to reform the Rockefeller laws that might make stories like Stevens' a thing of the past. New York lawmakers are scheduled to adopt the budget, which contains the changes, later today.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and for reformers, New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws became a potent symbol of everything that's wrong with the criminal-justice system. The laws, which were instituted in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in response to a rise in drug use, remove judicial discretion in sentencing, mandating harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. According to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, nine out of 10 convicted of drug offenses in New York are black and Latino, and 71 percent of New York City residents who are convicted come from the same seven poor neighborhoods.

The Rockefeller laws were overturned partially through the decades-long efforts of grass-roots activists, who recently formed an unusual coalition with criminal-justice experts, civil servants, and politicians. Nevertheless, the reforms stop far short of the full repeal trumpeted in headlines across the country: Mandatory minimum sentences are maintained under certain circumstances, and thousands of inmates will not be able to petition the courts for a reduced sentence. At the same time, the fall of the Rockefeller laws represents a nationwide trend in corrections away from the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach. Several states are refocusing their efforts on rehabilitation and re-entry instead of just incarceration, and last week Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia announced the creation of a commission that would look to reform the criminal-justice system in his state.

The change in New York's political leadership helped as well. Gov. David Paterson, who succeeded Eliot Spitzer in April 2008, was arrested as a state senator for protesting the Rockefeller laws. In November, the Democratic Party in New York regained control of the state Senate, marking the first time since the 1930s that Democrats have controlled both legislative houses and the governor's mansion. These factors, combined with a growing nationwide recognition that our current approach to corrections is unsustainable, formed a kind of perfect storm that made changing the Rockefeller laws politically possible. While Republican legislators often represent upstate constituencies, some of which are economically dependent on prisons, state Sen. Eric T. Schneiderman says that opposition to reforming the Rockefeller laws was primarily ideological.

"For years people were just terrified of being accused of being soft on crime," says Schneiderman, who has been leading efforts at reform. "And now the public wants us to be smart on crime, not just tough."

Brian Fischer, commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections, agrees. "People have come to realize that you can't build yourself out of the drug problem. You can't build enough jails to house everybody, and it doesn't solve anything," Fischer says. "Everybody who is in prison doesn't need to be in prison for as long as they are." Fischer emphasizes that the Rockefeller reforms come on the heels of a large policy shift in New York State toward reducing recidivism through re-entry programs and alternatives to incarceration and says that the changes have made things better. "You did not see an increase in recidivism or an increase in crime [as a result of reforms]," Fischer says. Not everyone is happy with the changes. New York City's Police Commissioner Ray Kelly blasted the changes, saying at a City Council hearing yesterday that the reforms were "a big mistake" and would "put criminals back on the streets."

Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, has been fighting the Rockefeller laws for 30 years. The Correctional Association runs the influential Drop The Rock Campaign, which has organized protests and information drives to educate the public about the effect of the Rockefeller laws. While calling the reforms a "significant advance," Gangi said there was still more work to be done. "The change does not represent the end of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. There are provisions left on the books which will require prison terms, sometimes long and hard prison terms for low-level drug offenses. So there is still work for us to do to promote full repeal."

Prior to the just-passed modification, the Rockefeller Drug laws removed all judicial discretion from matters of sentencing. Possession of a certain amount of drugs automatically triggered a harsh sentence. Now, only those convicted of the sale of 2 ounces or more of a hard drug or possession of 4 ounces or more of a hard drug will be subject to mandatory sentencing. The changes mean that around 6,000 people currently imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws -- around 50 percent of those convicted of drug offenses overall -- will be able to petition a court for a sentence reduction. The deal includes money for rehabilitation and re-entry services and calls for a greater role for New York's Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services in monitoring and administering drug-treatment services before and after release.

However, the reforms don't restore full judicial discretion in sentencing. Mandatory sentences remain for those convicted of selling more than half an ounce or possessing more than 4 ounces of a hard drug, with harsher penalties for larger amounts. The same is true of anyone convicted of a nonviolent drug offense who was previously convicted of a violent crime, and anyone who sells drugs to a minor. The primary criteria for triggering mandatory minimum sentencing remains the amount of drugs present, not the individual's role in the transaction. This means that had Terrance Stevens' companion been in possession of more than 4 ounces of cocaine, he would receive the same sentence even under the new laws. Despite the changes, more than 10,000 people will not be eligible to petition the court for a reduction in their sentence.

Gangi says the fight for a full repeal of the laws will continue. Despite the likelihood of a deal, and Gov. Paterson's public support for reforming the Rockefeller laws, as recently as last week hundreds of protesters gathered outside the governor's house to urge passage of the reforms.

On Friday, however, when the deal was first announced, Terrance Stevens had nothing but kind words for Gov. Paterson. "We thank him," Stevens said. "It's a great day for the state."

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to attribute statistics on drug offenders to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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