Gabriel Sayegh at (646)335-2264 or Anthony Papa at (646)420-7290
New York Governor Elliot Spitzer will be giving his second State of the State speech in Albany on Wednesday. Advocates are calling on the governor to keep his campaign promise of reforming the inhumane and wasteful Rockefeller Drug Laws. While campaigning for governor, Mr. Spitzer promised to make Rockefeller Drug Law reform a priority during his term as governor. However, during his first year in office, he has remained strangely silent on reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Today there are still almost 14,000 individuals imprisoned under the draconian laws; over 90% of them are black or Latino.
“It’s upsetting that the ‘Day One’ governor has still not done anything to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” said Gabriel Sayegh, director of the State Organizing and Policy Project at the Drug Policy Alliance. “For nearly 35 years, these racist laws have undermined justice and fairness in our state, and Gov. Spitzer knows it. It’s time for the governor to walk the talk and make good on his campaign promises by restoring justice and fairness in New York.”
Despite two minor reforms in 2004 and 2005, a welcome first step, the majority of Rockefeller prisoners were not affected by the changes. Out of around 1,000 Rockefeller prisoners who became eligible for judicial relief, only about 450 regained their freedom; the rest remain incarcerated because of procedural road blocks created by prosecutors.
Advocates were cautiously optimistic when Democratic Governor Spitzer and Lt. Governor David Paterson were sworn in a year ago. The Governor had promised to reform the laws and Lt. Governor Paterson had been a leading advocate for reform of the Rockefeller Laws when he was a state senator. So far, Spitzer has continued to sidestep the issue and shows no inclination to fight for change. Just last month, family members of prisoners were devastated to find out the governor did not grant a single holiday clemency. By contrast, Governor Pataki had issued 32 clemencies, 28 to people serving time under the draconian drug laws.
The clemency decision followed other stall tactics by the governor. Last year, Gov. Spitzer created a Commission on Sentencing Reform and charged the commission to review the state’s broken criminal justice system and make evidence-based recommendations for reform. Chaired by Department of Criminal Justice Services head Denise O’Donnell, the Commission issued its preliminary report in October. Shockingly, the report included no recommendations for drug law reform.
Early media reports about the Governor’s upcoming State of the State address again finds silence on Rockefeller Drug Law reform. “We read about New York State facing a four billion dollar budget gap. How about changing the ineffective Rockefeller Drug Laws?,” asked Anthony Papa, a nonviolent drug law violator who served 12 years before receiving clemency from Gov. Pataki in 1996. “We could save millions of dollars by offering nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of spending 40,000 dollars a year to lock them up in a cage.”