Adrian Wilson can’t make a lobbying trip to Albany anytime soon: The New York State Department of Corrections does not escort its prisoners to the state capital for teach-ins. But his story–typical of the 22,000 nonviolent drug offenders in New York’s cellblocks on any given day–could serve as the centerpiece of the campaign now under way for the long-overdue repeal of the notoriously punitive Rockefeller drug laws. In 1983 Wilson, an African-American, then 29, was arrested for drug possession–his first offense–and prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would have required him to undergo electroshock treatments and eight months’ incarceration. Wilson chose instead to exercise his constitutional right to a trial. Convicted of possessing four ounces of cocaine, instead of eight months he faced a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life.
No single moment in the history of US criminal justice matches the destructive impact of the New York legislature’s 1973 session. That was when Governor Nelson Rockefeller set the tone for a national wave of prison-packing schemes with the drug laws that bear his name. As Wilson’s case illustrates, the Rockefeller drug laws combined two regressive criminal justice policies into a new and potent brew: They prescribe imprisonment rather than treatment for drug offenders, and they establish mandatory minimum sentences and give the power to decide sentences to the prosecutors, who choose charges, rather than to the judges hearing cases.
The outcome, repeated thousands of times daily around the country: Nonviolent drug offenders like Wilson get punished not in proportion to any presumed threat to society but for daring to inconvenience prosecutors with a trial. With built-in incentives for police and prosecutors to concentrate on low-level users and with racial discrimination an inevitability, the Rockefeller drug laws are the ancestor of just about every regressive criminal justice policy since enacted–three-strikes laws, federal sentencing guidelines and zero-tolerance police sweeps.
With the cost for imprisoning Rockefeller drug offenders topping $710 million per year, Governor George Pataki has at last proposed a package of reforms reducing minimum drug sentences and expanding treatment. Assembly Democrats–many of whom have dodged the issue for years until Pataki opened the door–have upped the ante, proposing more sweeping discretion for judges and more money for drug treatment. The Correctional Association of New York and a broad array of activist, religious and legal-reform groups have launched a Drop the Rock campaign (kicked off with a March 1 forum in Manhattan co-sponsored by the Nation Institute), which on March 27 will bring thousands to Albany for a day of teach-ins and citizen lobbying. Only a handful of district attorneys, worried about losing their sentencing leverage in plea bargains, are holding out for the Rockefeller status quo.
So the question is not whether New York will reform but if reform will go far enough. Pataki’s plan would not give judges any more discretion for Class B felonies, the most commonly charged drug offenses in New York, and would actually increase some minimum sentences. Pataki would allow prosecutors to handpick the offenders tracked into treatment–a certain recipe for abuse and another usurpation of the proper authority of judges. Perhaps most important, Pataki has so far come nowhere near proposing a budget for drug treatment commensurate with the need. Drug-law reform without a commitment to drug treatment is a half-measure, similar to the 1980s deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients with no system of community mental healthcare in place.
New York, which for years styled itself as a pioneer in criminal justice policy, is now playing catch-up to states like California, whose voters last November overwhelmingly approved a treatment-over-prison referendum for first- and second-time offenders, or Colorado and Nevada, which have passed medical-marijuana measures. But the Rockefeller laws are the founding charter of the failed war on drugs, and their repeal would turn state reform tremors into an American earthquake. In immediate impact on the lives of the poor and people of color, and as a long-term shift in national priorities, there will be no more important campaign this year. It’s time to Drop the Rock.