Making the Case in Albany
While most of the 1,500 people who traveled to Albany from all over New York State last Tuesday endured freezing winds outside the legislature to tell stories of families torn apart and chant slogans like "drop the rock" and "educate, don't incarcerate," the dozen activists I was trailing were inside ready to meet the enemy. This racially diverse group of organizers, drug policy wonks and ex-offenders walked the marble hallways to urge legislators and aides to support complete repeal of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws rather than the dueling partial proposals that are the likely legislative compromise. Part of an ongoing citizen's campaign, this "day of action and education" was organized by a broad coalition calling itself appropriately "Drop the Rock."
In their last appointment of the day, the advocates sat in the conference room of Senator Dale Volker, a staunch supporter of tougher criminal laws, including the movement to restore capital punishment and build more prisons. Volker is also head of the Codes Committee, which oversees the creation of new criminal law in New York State. According to advocates inside the meeting, they had an antagonistic discussion with Volker's lawyer, Junior Drexilius, whose boss is expected to sponsor Governor George Pataki's bill that would increase penalties for marijuana sale and possession and could send even more low-level drug offenders to prison than is currently the case.
Still, advocates put their best arguments forward, explaining how the Rockefeller laws have failed in their stated intent. Because the main criterion for guilt is not the offenders' role but the amount of drugs in their possession at the time of arrest, police and prosecutors find it easier to nail the low-level users and sellers, most of whom are minorities. The brains behind the operation, the drug kingpins, usually receive a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for giving information and writing a check. Drexilius countered that race plays no role in sentencing and that when law enforcement incarcerate drug dealers, they are indeed winning the war on drugs.
That's when one advocate, who asked not to have his named used, stood up and told his story. "I bought my way out of jail," said the gray-haired white man. He then went on to explain that he used to work as a smuggler until he was caught. He served only two years in a detention facility--not a prison--because he gave the prosecution information and revealed bank accounts they could otherwise never have seized. He wrote the government a $4 million check and vowed he would try to change the system that landed his employees in prison and let him start a better life. Today, he works to help released prisoners so that they don't re-offend.
In a day with many striking moments, including many young people of color marching with numerals safety-pinned to their chests, and which meant so much for giving supporters of all ages a sense that they are part of a larger movement, here was an unusual occurrence. While lobbying efforts like these often yield rewards like networking, exchanging information and solidifying a base of support, here the best possible outcome could have happened: A light bulb could have gone off in the opposition's mind. But when I spoke to Drexilius afterwards, he said he still didn't really get it. "My sense is that he was a smuggler but not drugs--whether it was diamonds, drugs, jewelry I don't know. There are a lot of things you can smuggle," Drexilius said.
Drexilius said he was surprised to find out that this particular organizer was a smuggler because he had known him and his "outstanding" work for years. He says real-life stories about former offenders are par for the course on lobbying day that happens every Tuesday in Albany. "There are bad people and some of them show up in my office," he says. "People who have been convicted of serious drug felonies were major drug dealers and then they say that we should change the laws. It's a little outrageous."
Next Tuesday, a group of district attorneys will come to Albany to argue that the Rockefeller drug laws are working effectively, a sign that the opposition is becoming more formidable. Perhaps Drexilius will have less trouble understanding what they are saying.