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New York's 'Rocky' drug laws revised

Real reform remains, say activists

After years of false starts, reform finally came to the notorious New York State Rockefeller Drug Laws in early December. In a last minute move on the legislative session's last day, both the state Assembly and Senate passed a compromise bill that would reduce sentences for some New York State drug offenders.

Drug reformers and their allies are less than satisfied because the sentencing bill failed to address what they have long been identifying as key concerns: the return of judicial discretion in sentencing and a means of diverting drug offenders from prison into treatment.

Still, the bill passed in Albany and, after signing by Gov. Pataki, will bring relief to some imprisoned under New York's drug laws.

The bill both reduces sentences for some drug law violators and increases the quantity-thresholds required to kick in tougher sentences. Under the Rockefeller laws, Class A-1 felons faced 15-to-life; now they will face 8-to-20. Weight thresholds for heroin, cocaine, and other illicit drugs have doubled from four ounces to eight ounces to trigger a Class A-1 charge, and two ounces to four ounces to trigger a Class A-II charge.

The bill also provides for persons currently serving the longest sentences to ask for court hearings to seek sentence reductions in line with the new sentencing ranges. Under the Rockefeller laws that were passed in the early 1970s, more than one hundred thousand New Yorkers have been imprisoned on drug charges, many with draconian 15-year-to-life sentences.

The Rockefellers laws created a harsh mandatory minimum sentencing template that has since spread across the country, significantly contributing to the immense number of people imprisoned in the United States.

Source: The Drug War Chronicle,

Book Review:

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

By Jennifer Gonnerman

Life on the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years behind bars for selling cocaine - a first offense - under New York's controversial Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000 when she walks out of Bedford Hills prison. At 42, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no job, and no real home.

What she does have is a large and troubled family, including four children, who live in a decrepit housing project on the Lower East Side. "I left one prison to come home to another," Elaine says.

Over the next months, she clashes with her daughters, hunts for a job, visits her son and husband in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, and searches for a home of her own.

Beginning only a few years ago in earnest, the United States has now imprisoned more than two million people while making few preparations for their eventual release. Now these prisoners are coming home in record numbers, as unprepared for "life on the outside" as society is for them.

Jennifer Gonnerman calls attention to this mounting national crisis by crafting an intimate family portrait - a story of struggle and survival, guilt and forgiveness, loneliness and love.

Available through a local book store, or visit

Book Review:

15 to Life - How I Painted My Way to Freedom

By Anthony Papa with Jennifer Wynn

15 to Life tells a rare adventure story: how a family man, railroaded by the subterfuge surrounding the War on Drugs, was able to earn an early release from prison and become a major activist against draconian drug laws.

Offered a chance to make a quick $500, Anthony Papa agreed to deliver an envelope that was, instead, part of a police sting operation. His first and only criminal offense cost him a 15-year sentence to Sing-Sing, New York State's maximum-security prison. Papa contemplated suicide realizing the best years of his life would be spent clapped up in a six-foot cell.

One day he discovered painting. It gave him hope, and he found he had talent. When the Whitney Museum chose his painting to exhibit, he suddenly received intense media attention. Governor Pataki got wind of his case, and after 12 hard years of time, Anthony Papa was granted clemency.

15 to Life is more than a dramatic story, more than an inside look at one of the most dangerous prisons in America today - it is also an important sociological work and a call for reform of the destructive laws of the War on Drugs.

Available through a local book store, or visit

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