The landslide has started; the Rock begins to fall
Elinor Tatum | 4/12/2011, 4:35 p.m.
We have discussed, debated, criticized and berated the prison industrial complex that has its hold on American society. We have marched, we have written, we have protested a system that for too long has kept our community at bay. By keeping our folks incarcerated, uneducated and victims of a system that still does not work, our society has all but killed an entire generation. But there may be a light, or at least a glimmer of hope that some things might change. This week, Governor David Paterson, along with Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, announced an agreement calling for reform of the state's Rockefeller Drug Laws.
While some say the reforms go too far, others say it is not far enough; but in fact, it is a start. It is the first real good faith effort to make a change. When they tried to reform the laws in 2004, it did little. According to the drug policy alliance, this was the outcome:
* Slightly lowered most drug sentences.
* Allowed those serving the most serious of the old sentences (the A-I cases) to apply to be re-sentenced to a term allowed by the new law. In 2005, a slight expansion allowed for certain people with A-2 felonies to also apply for re-sentencing. Few people have seen relief under these reforms.
* Increased good-time allowances for everyone else already serving drug sentences.
* Expanded eligibility for prison-based drug treatment (not community-based treatment).
* Reformed parole practices--after three years without incident, parole must be terminated for those who served time for a Rockefeller Drug Law offense.
But now, there are some measures that could truly be looked at as reform. Under the new laws, judges would now have some discretion on sentencing and alternatives to incarceration. Judges would now be able to impose sentences that fit the crime and the individual rather than a statute. These new laws would allow judges the discretion to divert drug-addicted offenders into treatment instead of prison. Prisons will be used to house the real offender and not those who really need help. The object seems to be to treat rather than punish, thus hopefully ending the cycle of addiction.
The governor will commit tens of millions of dollars to expand drug treatment resources in the community, including inpatient treatment programs, outpatient treatment programs and community residential treatment facilities. As well as expanding the use of prison-based drug treatment--including the Shock incarceration program and Willard residential drug treatment program--the statute gives judges additional options for sentencing offenders who might require more than community-based drug treatment programs.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have had a devastating affect on communities of color in New York. Major studies have shown that proportionally, people of all races use drugs at equal rates. Yet, although people of color comprise approximately 23 percent of New York State's population, they comprise fully 91 percent of those incarcerated for drug felonies. There are more Blacks and Latinos entering the prison system for drug offenses each year than there are graduating from the entire state university system.
While one sweep of the pen will not fix all the ills of our prison and judicial systems, these changes are a step in the right direction. Now it will all depend on the judges' use of the new tools that they have to help save our communities. If applied correctly, the judges will really make a difference in the lives of New Yorkers. They can be the difference between life and living. Let's hope they make the right calls.