Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


From Punishment to Treatment

This year, New York reformed its landmark Rockefeller drug laws and experts say the reforms mark a shift in the states from a strictly punitive drug policy to more of a treatment model.
By Mikel Chavers
Anthony Papa did hard time in Sing Sing, New York’s maximum security prison, after the judge handed him a 15 years to life prison sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense under New York’s notoriously harsh Rockefeller drug laws in 1984.
That was the mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense under the laws, the same sentence as for second-degree murder.
“I was a first-time nonviolent offender who made the biggest mistake of his life in 1984,” Papa said. Desperately needing money to pay rent, Papa agreed to deliver a package for a man he met at the bowling alley he frequented.
“I delivered a package of four and a half ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, N.Y., for $500,” he said. “I was a mule for 500 bucks.”
Papa walked right into a sting operation and was caught by police.
At the time, New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, enacted in 1973 and named after then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, were some of the harshest in the country and many states followed in New York’s footsteps enacting harsh drug laws.
“It really started a trend in 1973,” said Gabriel Sayegh, who directs the State Organizing and Policy Project with the Drug Policy Alliance advocating for drug law reform.
But for Papa, the laws were more than a trend of the times; they offered little leeway in a sentence that would ultimately determine more than a decade of his life.
“Because of mandatory minimum sentencing, the judge didn’t want to, but he had to sentence me to 15 years to life,” Papa said.
He wound up serving 12 years before former Gov. George Pataki pardoned and released him in 1996, largely based on Papa’s talent for painting developed while he was in prison. Papa wrote a book in 2004 about his ordeal.
He’s been an advocate for Rockefeller drug reform movement ever since.
His efforts—and those of many others—met with success when the Rockefeller drug laws were changed in April. Experts say New York’s reform signals a shift from a strict policy of jail time and punishment for drug offenders to more of a treatment model. That’s something experts say is catching on—particularly in this down economy when states simply can’t afford to lock up as many offenders.
“Basically the trend now (is) to more of a treatment model than a punitive model, where in my case I was treated strictly punitively,” Papa said. “And now it’s different. Judges have more discretion. This to me is really big and it’s significant.”

Harsh Drug Laws No Longer Economical

Experts say the Rockefeller drug laws cost the state billions to lock up hundreds of thousands of drug offenders. Some of those offenders are still in the state’s prisons and jails serving out their sentences.
The reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws eliminate the mandatory harsh sentences under the original laws by giving judges total authority to instead divert some nonviolent drug addicts to treatment, according to New York Gov. David Paterson’s office.
The reforms also beefed up drug treatment programs, according to New York Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee.
The reforms in New York were enacted April 24 as part of the state’s 2009-2010 budget.
The old laws did not emphasize treatment and “led to huge disparities,” Aubry said. “We felt they skewed the justice system and ultimately in the 1980s and 1990s led to a huge prison population.”
And New York was spending a whopping $2 billion to $3 billion a year on corrections, according to Aubry.
In fact, the budget pressures were part of what sparked the need for reform, according to Sayegh with the Drug Policy Alliance.
“New York and many other states were more than willing to spend gobs and gobs of money on prisons that were bursting at the seams,” Sayegh said. But that is slowly changing.
“It cost New Yorkers $45,000 a year to incarcerate someone for drug offenses,” Sayegh said.
“The legislature had to find savings.”
In May 2008 on the 35th anniversary of the Rockefeller drug laws, a meeting signaled a turning point, according to Sayegh. The legislature’s criminal justice and corrections committees joined three public health committees. The six committees held joint hearings on drug law reform.
“No longer did you have a debate that was essentially turning on criminal justice language,” Sayegh said. Public health and drug treatment was now in the debate.
The options, Papa said, would have benefited people with drug habits who, under the old Rockefeller drug laws, sat in prison for long sentences. “They definitely would have significantly made out better getting treatment than being put in jail,” he said.
The new reforms put “the judge in the driver’s seat and not the prosecutor who had previously been in the driver’s seat,” Aubry said. This way, judges have discretion and can divert drug offenders to treatment instead of incarceration. The practice is evident in New York’s use of drug courts, where judges have specialized training to deal with drug offenders and their unique issues. (Please see sidebar.)
“This year we were able to restore a lot more discretion to judges so they could make decisions based on the individuals who were in front of them,” Aubry said.
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