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Mayor Ernest Davis Of Mt. Vernon And Community Leaders Call Upon State Legislators To Reform The Rockefeller Drug Laws Now

The Westchester County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union held a news conference today that featured area mothers who were formerly incarcerated for long prison terms under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Prominent community leaders were also in attendance. At the news conference, Mayor Ernest Davis of the City of Mt. Vernon urged New York State lawmakers to “show some courage and leadership” by reforming the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws before the end of the legislative session:

“Monies would be better spent on prevention and drug treatment rather than wasting public dollars on incarceration,” said Mayor Davis. “All jail time accomplishes is the further devaluation and criminalization of drug abusers, costing the public more money without solving the drug problem. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

On June 7, the Senate Republicans precipitously shut down a joint Senate-Assembly conference committee that was trying to draft a reform bill. With the end of the session looming, speakers urged the legislature to act now.

“Virtually everybody agrees the Rockefeller Drug Laws are unfair, but so far New York State’s elected officials, unlike their counterparts in many other states, have not had the courage and wherewithal to confront this issue squarely,” said Robert Perry, Legislative Director of the NYCLU.

According to a study recently released by Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson who is a strong supporter of reform, when it comes to sentencing drug offenders, New York has the harshest laws in the country by far. Perry adds, “We have yet to see a true reform proposal from the Senate. The community is paying attention. It is not a coincidence we are holding this press conference in Westchester County. We intend to hold elected officials accountable statewide for their action — or inaction — in reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

Jan Warren spent more than 12 years in New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, where she was sent in 1987 to serve two 15-years-to-life sentences for selling 8 ounces of cocaine — her first criminal offense. She left behind a teenage daughter, Erin. Had the sentencing judge been permitted to consider her background, community ties, character and role in the offense, her sentence would have been a fraction of what it was.

Jan Warren was released after serving over 12 years only because her sentence was commuted by Governor Pataki on December 23, 1999. But as she pointed out, the damage had been done. At that point she had spent a quarter of her life behind bars and for all intents and purposes, her young daughter had no mother during her formative teenage years. Today Jan Warren works for the College and Community Fellowship, an organization that provides academic counseling, mentoring, tutoring and leadership development to women who have been in prison.

She is also the co-founder of New York Mothers of the Disappeared, a grassroots organization that is fighting for the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I understand that back in 1973, lawmakers felt the need to get control over the rampant drug use of the 60’s and 70’s, said Warren. “What I don’t understand is that even now, 31 years later, they haven’t gotten the message that it’s not working.”

Deacon Ken Radcliffe, Coordinator of The Isaiah Project and the Criminal “Just-Us Committee” called attention to the negative impact the Rockefeller Drug Laws were having on public health and safety. “I have worked in the drug treatment field for many years and I know from my own experience and from research in the field that treatment is far more effective than incarceration if our goal is to reduce drug addiction, “ said Deacon Radcliffe. “Our elected leaders need to start acting more like public servants and less like politicians, and true public servants would support the diversion of drug users into treatment, which is what real reform is all about.”

The NYCLU is working with the Real Reform 2004 Coalition and Coordinator Michael Blain, who laid out the four principles of real reform. These principles have been endorsed by hundreds of civic, faith-based, educational, and legal organizations:

  • Reducing sentences to levels proportionate to those for other non-violent crimes, and bringing New York into line with national standards.
  • Restoring judicial discretion so judges can fashion just sentences based on consideration of the particular case and, when appropriate, sentence low-level offenders to community-based treatment.
  • Delivering retroactive sentencing relief to currently incarcerated Rockefeller inmates serving unjustly long sentences.
  • Expanding drug treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration for diverted low-level offenders.

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