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A Blank Spot Where a Person Could Be

June 21, 2006

In the US in 2005, 1 in every 136 people was in prison. How much more insight into a society could you ask for from one sentence? The bureaucrats in the Justice Department must be poets. For the sticklers for exactness, the actual number was 2,186,230 as reported in June 05 (see Bureau of Justice Statistics May 2006 report).

In New York 136 people is peanuts. You pass that many in the street just about every time you leave your building. Go to buy groceries, pick up a lotto ticket 133, 134, 135, and the 136th? If the Justice Department’s contentions are correct, that 136th person you passed is a blank spot, a negative space where a person could be but isn’t. So in today’s post, my first, I want look at that collective void, and at the prospects for some of those 136s to return to us—it’s an election year after all, anything can happen. So here we go . . .

It was the Rockefellers that started it. Or anyway a Rockefeller. Think Astors, Carnegies, Drews, Fisks, Harrimans – it’s a name with a context. It was just one Rockefeller, a descendant of the Ayn Rand crowd, a true blue-blood Governor Rockefeller, Nelson, who started it here in New York at least.

It was perhaps a bid for higher office. He had lost the Republican presidential primaries throughout the 60′s. In May, 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through the state legislature a series of anti-drug laws.

The Rockefeller Laws (as they came to be called) are a set of mandatory sentences for those convicted of drug possession and sale. According to the statutes, possession of four, or sale of two ounces of narcotics carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison—the equivalent sentence of, say, an attempted murder conviction.

An interesting thing about the Rockefeller Laws, is they bypassed the judges. Our own elected or appointed judiciary didn’t have and still don’t have discretion in these matters, it’s just fifteen to life for possessing a four-ounce bag. And the sentence is fixed regardless of context. Say your roommate is dealing drugs, unbeknownst to you: you end up being prosecuted too; desperate and selling dope, first offense, non-violent… Doesn’t matter. That’s what mandatory minimums are about—systematizing it.

On the national scene, aspiring politicos began using mandatory minimums as tough guy facelifts for their election campaigns. By the way, let’s not blame it all on the Rockefellers, or Republicans. There is of course that timeless Nixonism “[Drugs are] America’s public enemy number one” back in 1970 or so. But it was the Democrats who really did it. Specifically, it was Dem House Speaker Tip O’Neill who suggested it, it was the Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the House who passed it, and it was both sides who used it. It was called the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Federal mandatory sentencing guidelines. Not so harsh as the Rockefeller laws, the same principle applied.

The trajectory was set and didn’t change. We ended 2005 in a preposterous situation with 1 in 136 people in prison. Add another 5 or 6 million on probation, that’s 1 in 56 adults in the system (BTW thanks to Washington State University for those stats). Due to the Rockefeller laws, the proportion of NY State inmates incarcerated on drug charges increased from 11% in 1980 to 44% by 1999. Over 90% of those are Black or Hispanic. Really, the results of both state and national drug laws are so completely and incontestably skewed towards incarcerating the poor and defenseless, it makes you wonder just what sort of lunatic asylum we’re living in.

Which brings me so very belatedly to the point of all this: no more Pataki!

He’s leaving us New Yorkers to jump through hoops for the ’08 national team. Which means it’s probably going to be Spitzer, his old AG (attorney general for the acronym impaired). Now Pataki did push through some drug reforms (mostly lowering mandatory minimums by a couple years and letting some inmates apply for release). But the consensus has mostly been way too little, way too late.

Spitzer has advocated, in a careful sort of way, “These laws [Rockefeller] have had an unduly harsh impact on minority communities and resulted in extraordinary cost to the state.” His chosen running mate (for lieutenant governor) David Paterson made Drug Law Reform an ongoing project while Senate minority leader. But the real star here is Albany DA David Soares.

In 2004, Soares ran for the Albany DA seat largely on a drug policy reform platform and won. And won against a well financed incumbent opponent, Paul Clyne. The amazing thing about Soares is that he holds an elected post yet actually speaks in normal human language – literate human language, that is.

For instance, Soares at a recent conference in Vancouver: “My advice to Canada is stay as completely far away from U.S. drug law policy as possible.” So here is the hope: a Spitzer-Paterson-Soares cabal serves the Rockefeller Laws their coup de grace.

Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, way ahead. Maybe no one wants the laws… but changing them? Imagine aspiring Albany lawmakers opening themselves up to the political broadside: weak on drugs/crime. Imagine spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on letting people out of prison early. It’s not the sort of thing you hear of. Besides, the election’s not over yet. And Soares is only a humble Albany DA. But, with Pataki and Co. on the way out, the possibilities for some tangible changes to the Rockefeller Laws are just too temping not to contemplate.

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