Innocent New Yorkersand the Rockefeller Drug Laws
"NewYork's public system of higher education remains one of the best bargains for ahigh quality education in America." –George Pataki
Mandatoryminimum sentences for drug offenders were introduced to New York State in 1973,a time when the ballooning drug epidemic located chiefly in New York City wasnearing a boiling point. With the clouds of prejudice still marring thehorizon, drugs provided an outlet for minorities in New York to rise above theunfair pressures otherwise holding them down.
Theease with which one could rise through the ranks of drug dealers was chronicledin Terry Williams’ 1989 novel, Cocaine Kids, in which he lived with and observed a group ofDominican cocaine dealers in Harlem. Williams’ in depth account tells the storyof several 15 year olds who treat their job with as much maturity, diligenceand perseverance as someone twice their age would go about working.Consequently, the simplicity of hustling coke on the streets of New York led toan explosion in drug sales.
Tocope with this bourgeoning, New York drew up a set of laws imposing mandatoryminimum sentences for concurrent drug charges. These laws came into effect asthe Rockefeller Drug laws, passed on May 5, 1973. At that time, the most commonnarcotic being sold was Crack, a concentrated form of cocaine base. Since Crackdealing charges were piling up faster than they could be taken to trial, themandatory minimum sentences provided the New York judiciary system with aconvenient proverbial pipeline with which to fill upstate prisons faster thanthey could be built, without having to bother with long trials for eachoffense. It seemed like a good idea at the time, the streets weresystematically being cleaned up, and the drug problem was deflating, slowlyenough, but deflating nonetheless.
TheRockefeller narcotics laws had their place. In theory they were beneficial.Unfortunately in practice they began to have a reverse effect. The kingpins,the guys who actually controlled the flow of drugs onto New York’s streets,were protected by a layer of harmless kids from underprivileged neighborhoodsthat were trying to make enough money to rise out of a life of poverty. Thekids were out on the street, prone to law enforcement, doing the dirty work,while their bosses reclined in attics and basements, counting stacks of moneyby day and attending lavish parties by night, all the while enjoying financialfreedom. The kids on the streets were the ones who got arrested and sentupstate. New York’s drug laws were only filling up prisons and costing New YorkState millions of dollars of unnecessary tax dollars.
NewYorkers weren’t necessarily taxed more for this exponential increase in thenumber of incarcerations. The destination of their taxes was simply modifiedslightly by the brilliant bureaucrats in Albany. They felt that in order tooffset the rising costs of incarcerations, they could dip into the amount ofmoney spent on higher education. In effect, the State Legislature was nowtaking money away from schools in addition to locking up teens that were tryingto break free from the shackles of poverty. New York was making it so anyonewithout proper privileges didn’t have a chance in hell to save themselves and theirkin from poverty.
Thesebudget cuts came in many different forms, and didn’t necessarily apply just tohigher education. In 1998, Governor Pataki vetoed over half a billion dollarsof SUNY funding, funding of libraries and community organizations, and a billthat would have prohibited the construction of a $180 milliondollar prison in the Finger Lakes region (Gangi).
Pataki’svetoes seem to be senseless. Upon further examination however, one can see whyhe would have to take such drastic amounts of money from education. One inmatecosts the state $30,000 per yea to incarcerate a male, and double that for awoman. That is a humbling sum, which could send nearly ten individuals to, aSUNY school for one year completely free of charge (Gangi).
Ina time when a good education is the most valuable possession an individual canhave, New York is actually paying money to keep underprivileged teens out ofschool. As if that weren’t enough, these teens are being thrown into completelydifferent environments. If Joe Somebody from the Bronx agrees to sell someCrack to help his family through hard times and gets arrested, he is going to aplace where he will be surrounded by criminals he wouldn’t previously have beenexposed to. While he may not have been a criminal before being locked up, asany inmate will tell you: he will be once he is released. Once again, New YorkState is countering its own measures by sending innocent youth away to becomecriminals.
Eventhe New York’s Judges are beginning to see the absurdity of the laws. A Judgefrom Monroe County was forced to impose a 15 year-to-life sentence on a singlemother who had been charged with selling a controlled substance and had nocriminal record. The judge balked at what the mandatory minimum was forcing himto do, and later referred to it as a “travesty” (Cohen). Being a single mother,her child was now stripped of his only parent and thrown into the foster caresystem. Such traumatic events do not bode well with those who are growing up andtrying to validate themselves. It is also very likely that the single mother’schild or children would lapse into an illegal lifestyle in order to survive.Many justices in New York agree that they should ultimately be the ones todecide the fate of drug offenders, and not a set of 35 year-old laws. Thenarcotics laws frequently force them to impose sentences that they know willonly create more problems than they are solving.
Sowhat is the alternative to locking drug offenders up? Rehabilitation seems tobe the thought on everyone’s mind. The drug hustlers that are selling on thestreet would benefit the most from attention to their vices and turn themaround into being productive individuals. The cost of rehab also pales incomparison to that of prison (Cohen). Rehabilitation would keep familiestogether, and provide a mechanism for the rehabilitee to get a leg up into theworking world.
GovernorPataki, who vetoed millions of dollars of education spending, is even beginningto catch on to the reform movement. In recent years he has attempted to inducereform, but inter-house, and bi-partisan disagreement have prevented much ofanything from being accomplished, aside from slight adjustments to sentencelength. The fact of the matter is, no matter how long the sentence is, the sameeffect still takes place. Prison is not the answer in most cases.
Therehas long been speculation about ulterior motives behind the laws. Consider thefollowing: Most drug offenders are sent to upstate prisons. Most upstate prisonsare located in comparatively wealthy areas such as the Finger Lakes and MohawkValley regions. Prisoners in these upstate facilities are void of the right tovote. They do however; weigh in on the electoral power of the district wheretheir prison is located. Therefore, the wealthy upstate regions have adisproportionate amount of electoral power compared to less affluent areasdownstate. Although it is obscure, this is another aspect of the laws thatshould be examined and modified.
Asmore and more residents of New York become educated about the antiquatedRockefeller Drug Laws, the reform movement gains more momentum. Unfortunatelyreform probably won’t come until the whole state is in Albany with picketingoutside the Capitol. If a movement of that magnitude is what it takes then tella friend, and tell that friend to tell a friend, to get educated. New York’spoliticians can make the drug problem sound completely under control bythrowing out figures about arrests and clean streets, but we all should take acloser look to see that prisons aren’t solving the drug problem.
Cohen,Hilary, “The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Will They Ever Change?” The YorkScholar. Spring 2005
Gangi,Robert, “New York State of Mind?: Higher Education vs. Prison Funding in theEmpire State, 1988-1998”. Justive Policy Institute. 26 Jan. 2004