May 8 marks the 34th anniversary of New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws. Despite a few recent reforms, which in theory would fix the draconian nature of these laws, little has been done and the campaign for meaningful reform continues. In fact, out of the current 13,000 Rockefeller prisoners, fewer than 300 have been freed under the revisions to date.
In recent elections, a number of officials who went on record in support of real Rockefeller reform were voted into office. Governor Elliot Spitzer, for one, along with Lt. Governor David Paterson and Attorney General Cuomo all have spoken out for reform in the past. But now they are surprisingly silent on the issue.
In 2004, I wrote a memoir of my experiences serving a 15-to-life sentence under these harsh laws. Andrew Cuomo, before he became our state's attorney general, threw a book release party for me at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Attending the event were prominent individuals like Senator David Paterson, along with many other influential guests.
Cuomo and Paterson spoke bravely about changing these draconian laws. Spitzer, the then-attorney general of New York, did not attend but wrote a letter saying that my story was a "very personal and tragic story, like those of so many other nonviolent offenders languishing in our prisons on relatively minor drug offenses," and that it "illustrates the impact that our Rockefeller Drug Laws have had on a generation of New Yorkers. I applaud Mr. Papa's courage in speaking out and sharing his ordeal with the world." It was a moving event that generated a vision of changing the Rockefeller Drug Laws in a positive way.
I find it strange that the people who had supported change in the past have now become so silent on the issue. My question is why do politicians who use political platforms to generate votes suddenly forget their past when elected to higher office?
Governor Elliot Spitzer, does appear interested in correcting the criminal justice sector, as evidenced by his success in removing exorbitant charges on collect calls made by prisoners to their families, and his recent attempt to downsize half-empty prisons. But his laudable efforts have not cued in on the Rockefeller reform. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who has used this issue in the past to revive his political career has not uttered a word about it. And Lt. Governor David Paterson who represented a highly affected Harlem district as senator has steered away from the issue.
Last week the New York State Assembly passed a bill for further reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws. Cheri O'Donoghue joined them at a press conference and talked about her son Ashley who is serving a 7 to 21 sentence for a first time non-violent drug offense. This mother grieved for the son she had lost to laws that had taken away her relationship with him. She asked why the Rockefeller Drug Laws had now not been a priority with so many politicians that had benefited from them in the past. No one could answer her question. It's time for Spitzer, Paterson and Cuomo to join the NYS Assembly and step up to the plate. They should remember their past intentions, especially when it affects the people who voted them into office.
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