In 1985, Anthony Papa owned an auto repair and radio business in the Bronx. He played in a bowling league in Yonkers. One of his team members asked him one day if he wanted to make a quick $500 by delivering an envelope with cocaine in it. He agreed, and that mistake, as he calls it, cost Papa 12 years in Sing Sing.
The courier who brought the 4.5 ounces of cocaine to Papa was a police informant. "The more people he got involved, the less time he got," Papa says.
Papa had never before been in trouble with the law. But he was sentenced under New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate a 15-year-to-life sentence for selling two ounces or more of cocaine or possessing four ounces or more. No leniency for first-time, nonviolent offenders. No discretion for judges.
Papa earned two undergraduate degrees in prison and a master's degree from New York Theological Seminary. He became an artist and gained renown when his work was exhibited in the Whitney Museum. On Dec. 24, 1996, Papa was one of seven prisoners granted Christmas clemency by New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R). In the years since then, Papa has been an advocate for drug law reform. He was one of the featured speakers this week at a drug law reform rally in Albany, the state capital.
The Rockefeller drug laws were passed in 1973, and they became models for legislation in other states and for federal mandatory-sentencing laws. Such laws are one of the principal reasons that the U.S. prison population has quadrupled,
to 2 million, since 1980.
Since 1982, New York has opened 38 prisons, not counting annexes. All are in rural, mainly white areas represented by Republican state senators, according to the Campaign to Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The prison system employs nearly 30,000 people in those GOP Senate districts, where the prisons receive more than $1.1 billion a year for operating expenses.
The prison industry nationally has flourished under mandatory-sentencing laws, and it has become a powerful political lobby from New York to California. And, of course, the drug trade continues to flourish.
But change is in the wind. In his State of the State address, Pataki promised meaningful reform, although his proposals do not measure up. He would give more discretion to judges than they have now, but he would eliminate parole for nonviolent offenses and leave it up to district attorneys to choose drug treatment programs for diverted offenders. His plan would provide no additional funding for treatment. Further, he would upgrade certain marijuana offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, which is a guaranteed way to boost the number of young people in prison.
Nevertheless, Pataki's timid venture into drug reform has opened the way for the Democrat- controlled state Assembly to offer its own package of reforms without being pummeled by "soft on crime" accusations. There is broad, bipartisan support emerging in the Assembly for putting low-level offenders into treatment as opposed to ineffective, expensive jail cells. And in the Senate, some Republicans have proposed more money for treatment.
Democratic lawmakers are proposing to spend more than $100 million a year on alternative punishment and treatment for drug offenders, but their proposal falls far short of restoring full discretion to the judges. Judges still would have no discretion in cases in which the offenders have a history of violence or in drug cases involving a minor.
Reform advocates believe that the New York proposals do not go far enough in shifting the power of sentencing and/or treatment away from prosecutors and back to judges, which is where such power over a person's life belongs.
The Assembly plan would double the drug weight at which mandatory punishments for possession and sale kick in and would reduce the sentences, said Sharda Sekeran, associate director of public policy and community outreach at the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, a leading reform advocate. "We are optimistic there could be even more changes, considering how unprecedented the support is from the governor and popular support," Sekeran said.
Other signs of hope are coming from New Mexico, which has shifted the emphasis in drug cases from law enforcement to public health. New laws provide for increased availability of naloxone, a medication that reverses the effect of heroin overdoses; distribution of sterile syringes through pharmacies to users who inject drugs; restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences; and increased treatment services to women drug offenders.
"A year ago, no one wanted to talk about this issue at all," New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) said in a statement at the end of the legislative session. "Now both Democrats and Republicans have committed to common-sense ways to reduce the harms associated with drug abuse and with our current drug policies." A statewide poll conducted in early March found widespread support for eliminating criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and for providing treatment to low-level hard-drug users.
Drug reform advocates believe that their cause got a big boost from the movie "Traffic," which dramatized the folly of the war on drugs and its huge cost to families. What is becoming clear is that the public wants no more of the inhumane idiocy that castrated the judicial system, stole years from the lives of people such as Anthony Papa and squandered billions on building and maintaining prisons instead of helping people sort out their lives.
Sometimes it takes years to find out an experiment doesn't work, but when the public realizes that it is paying for a simple-minded failed solution to a deeply complex problem, change can come very quickly.