Today is a historic day for New York, the day that the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms kicked in, setting in motion the release of 1,500 low-level nonviolent drug offenders. The new law also gives judicial discretion back to judges, who can now determine whether someone should get treatment for their addiction instead of a jail cell.
I went to Brooklyn's Supreme Court and attended a public event to mark the milestone. The court room was full of activists, politicians and service providers that have been working for years to make this reform happen.
As an activist who has felt the sting of the Rockefeller laws firsthand -- serving 12 years under a 15-years-to-life sentence for a first time nonviolent offense -- I understand the full meaning of these changes. For years the Rockefeller Drug Laws became a political hot potato that was thoroughly debated, but nothing was ever done. Bills were submitted, arguments were made and each political party blamed the other for the impasse. In the meantime, those imprisoned were rotting away in the gulags of New York state. No better off were the family members of the incarcerated, whose hopes and aspirations slowly died as nothing was done.
Governor Paterson deserves thanks and praise for getting the job done. He has been instrumental and worked tirelessly, first as a state senator from Harlem and then as governor, to make these reforms happen. He said that "today was a day for second chances." For me, the governor's statement summed up the purpose of the new reforms. For years the Rockefeller Drug Laws were a symbol of a purely punitive approach to the problems of the drug war in New York state, one based on the archaic and outdated criminal justice mentality of "lock 'em up and throw away the key." Now, under the guidance of Governor Paterson, New York has abandoned that failed strategy and committed itself to a new approach that emphasizes addiction treatment instead of incarceration.
Now that the laws have been reformed, we have to make sure the changes are done right. Advocates and service providers have jumped in and have been working diligently to prepare for implementation. Legal aid and public defender agencies are providing legal counsel. Hundreds of social service agencies around the state have volunteered to provide a broad range of services to individuals who will be released from prison as a result of drug law reform. In New York City alone, more than 100 social service groups have agreed to work with legal aid and public defender agencies to provide services such as housing, job training and drug treatment to people returning from prison as a result of the reform.
For 35 years, New York was known as the state with the worst drug laws. It's time to change directions and make New York known for having the best practices, based on public health and safety.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life and a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance
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