Looking to Paterson to Come Through on Drug Law Reform
When Eliot Spitzer became Governor of New York, advocates for repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws had high hopes for advancing their cause. The modest drug law reforms under Governor Pataki in 2004 and 2005 helped remove the issue from the public spotlight, yet did very little to remedy the excessive incarceration of low-income people of color. Judges still do not have the discretion to determine sentences on a case-by-case basis and thousands of low-level, non-violent people convicted of crimes are still being sent to prison each year instead of to drug treatment.
During his 2006 campaign, Spitzer promised to support drug law reform and real change seemed possible. But a year after his inauguration, the CA and other advocates were still waiting for the governor to fulfill his promise. His 2008 State of the State Address, for example, made no mention of sentencing reform.
Spitzer’s silence on the issue notwithstanding, the CA’s Drop the Rock campaign to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws gained new life. In September, the CA hired a full-time organizer to coordinate the reinvigorated effort. Since then, Drop the Rock has been steadily convening coalition meetings, holding public forums, publishing fact sheets, and organizing advocacy days. This year being the 35th anniversary of the laws’ passage, the campaign launched the 35th Year Petition drive in January, aiming to collect 35,000 signatures urging policymakers to support drug law repeal. The media, too, sensed that the campaign was again gathering momentum. In early March, Drop the Rock held lively public forums in Hempstead and at Ethical Culture Society in New York City, which received write-ups in Newsday and the Village Voice, respectively.
Two days after the Hempstead forum, the Spitzer scandal broke. By the following Monday, Lieutenant Governor David Paterson was sworn in as New York’s 55th governor. While no one can be pleased with the strange turn of events that led to the downfall of a mainly progressive political figure, Paterson’s ascent remains a potentially positive development regarding drug law reform.
A former State Senator from Harlem, Paterson has been one of New York’s most outspoken critics of mandatory minimum sentencing. He was arrested–alongside Meile Rockefeller, granddaughter of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and CA Board Member–in an act of civil disobedience during a 2002 Drop the Rock demonstration in front of Governor Pataki’s New York City office. In 2004, when the Senate and Assembly agreed on a watered-down reform bill, Paterson told the Albany Times Union, “What we’re going to fight for is that the issue stays alive. […] It is my belief that our capacity to influence the situation is greater than before.”
Now Paterson has the opportunity to profoundly “influence the situation” by making the issue a top priority, and Drop the Rock is moving quickly to hold him to his long-standing commitment to drug law overhaul. Like the CA and many others, Paterson knows the devastating effects these kinds of laws have had on communities—mothers and fathers needlessly torn from families, young people confined in debilitating conditions, and people in desperate need of treatment to address their addictions instead locked up hundreds of miles from their homes. After three and a half decades of costly, ineffective, and racially biased mandatory sentencing policy, the CA looks to New York’s new
governor, historically an ally, to exercise leadership and promote repeal
of the Rockefeller Drug Laws now.
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