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Hundreds Rally at Governor’s NYC Office, Demand End of Rockefeller Drug Laws

Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied today in front of Gov. David Paterson’s Manhattan office, urging the governor and legislative leaders to enact a sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state’s infamous mandatory-minimum drug sentencing scheme.

Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied today in front of Gov. David Paterson’s Manhattan office, urging the governor and legislative leaders to enact a sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state’s infamous mandatory-minimum drug sentencing scheme.

Speakers – including hip hop mogul and reform advocate Russell Simmons and the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church – called on lawmakers to seize this historic opportunity to end the unjust and ineffective laws.

“New York’s drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow Laws of the 21st Century,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities. Governor Paterson and our legislative leaders must finally put an end to this endless cycle of failure and injustice.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated are convicted of low-level offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison under the Rockefeller laws suffer from substance abuse problems; many others struggle with issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. About 90 percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white.

“Today we stand at the doorstep of change, and we call on the governor, the state assembly leader and the senate majority leader to fulfill their promise to make that change to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all,” Simmons said. “We have all been working hard for too many years to not restore full judicial discretion and give judges the option to send people with addictions to treatment rather than prison. The hip-hop community will continue to seek the change that we all know is right.”

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state’s drug sentencing scheme remains intact. These laws deny judges the authority to place people suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness into treatment programs.

“For 36 years, New York State has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by allowing the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws to serve as a stimulus package for rural upstate prison communities,” said Glenn Martin, vice president of The Fortune Society. “No longer can we continue to lock up drug addicted people from poor urban communities, simply because policy makers lack a vision for upstate economic development.”

In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting the sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki.

“Seven years ago, David Paterson, then a State Senator from Harlem, was handcuffed in an act of civil disobedience aimed at pressing Governor Pataki to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Five years ago, as Senate Minority Leader, he proposed sweeping changes to the harsh statutes” says Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Drop the Rock Campaign. “Now, as Governor, his constituents are rallying to urge him to exercise the leadership he was once known for.”

“We are here to remind Governor Paterson of his past promises and to urge him to return to his better political self,” state Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association. “His record tells us that he’s fully aware of these laws’ harsh effects, that they are wasteful, ineffective, and marked by a stark racial bias. It is time for him as governor to exercise leadership in removing the stain of these notorious statutes from New York’s penal code.”

“In 2002, Gov. Paterson stood by my side as a senator from Harlem New York and spoke bravely about changing the laws that heavily affected his constituency,” said Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance and former prisoner under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “Now as governor he has the power to transform those words into action that will finally achieve meaningful reform.”

“For 36 years, the Rockefeller Drug Laws have filled our prisons, emptied the taxpayer’s pockets and have had no effect whatsoever on New York State’s drug use, especially in communities of color, except to turn young people into recidivist felons,” said George Bethos, leader of NYC AIDS Housing Network & Voices Of Community Advocates And Leaders (VOCAL). “Repeal these laws immediately or have society continue to pay the price.”

“We want to see the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted each year on criminalizing chemical dependency in poor urban areas reinvested in those very same communities targeted by these laws,” said Kym Clark, director of FREE! Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment. “We need livable wage jobs, educational resources, and access to health care, for starters.”

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