On March 27, two days after hundreds of people convened at his Manhattan office to demand the repeal of the state’s controversial
Rockefeller drug laws
, New York Governor
announced plans to significantly reform the infamous legislation. Passed in 1973, the Rockefeller laws were the first to impose stringent mandatory jail sentences for drug crimes. They inspired a wave of similar laws across the country, which flooded the nation’s prisons with minor drug offenders. Nationwide, more than 70 percent of those now incarcerated for drug felonies are black or Latino. The proposed reforms would grant judges discretion to send many first- and second-time nonviolent offenders to substance-abuse treatment programs instead of jail and would expand the state’s drug treatment infrastructure.
, coordinator of
Drop the Rock
, an advocacy organization that supports total repeal, the changes are “a beginning and not an end.” The reforms leave in place some sentencing requirements that limit judicial discretion on more serious offenses, and Drop the Rock estimates that fewer than 1,500 of the nearly 12,000 people incarcerated under the laws will be eligible for resentencing. “I’m beginning to get some e-mails from families expecting their loved ones will be coming home to them,” Dunklee says, “and in most cases that’s not true.”
Still, the legislation reflects a growing consensus that drug abuse is a public health issue better served by increased treatment, not jail time. “New York State could go from having some of the worst drug laws,” says
Drug Policy Alliance
, to being a model for getting us “out of the war on drugs that we’ve been stuck in for thirty-five years.”SARAH ARNOLD
“We’re actually going to have some live stuff,” explained President
, “instead of some virtual stuff.” With that plucky note, on March 26 Obama ended the first open, democratically operated virtual town hall in White House history.
If nothing else, the president’s virtual town hall was significant for its open structure. The six questioners were not chosen by the government. They were not vetted for their stories. They did not finagle tickets to a rare presidential visit in their town. Instead, they were chosen by the tens of thousands of people who voted in favor of their questions at
Several top questions, as it happens, pushed a bit past the typical DC agenda.
A Californian named Richard pressed Obama on single-payer healthcare, a topic that reporters never raised in the presi-
dent’s first two press conferences. (That
issue also topped
Ask The President
communitycounts.com/obama, a similar citizen-question portal backed by a media coalition including The Nation.) Other popular questions assailed the “war on drugs,” advocating the legalization of marijuana and asking whether such reforms might even stimulate the economy. Obama tried to laugh off the issue, but reporters followed up with press secretary
that afternoon, quoting and sharpening citizen queries to probe the administration’s recent talks with Mexico and its plans to try to reduce the domestic demand for narcotics.