March 27, 2001

C.U. Civil Liberties Union Goes to 'Drop the Rock'

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Today marks campaign season all over again for legislators in the New York State capitol, but it will be voters appealing to their representatives for support this time — support to repeal or revise the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

About 30 people from Ithaca, including Cornell and Ithaca College students, will join a state-wide coalition that has rallied support from local communities and college campuses to oppose laws they consider to be harsh on even the most minor drug offenders.

“This year there is a real sense of urgency since [Gov. George E.] Pataki changed his stance on [drug law reform,]” said Adam Crouch ’03, president of the Cornell Civil Liberties Union (CCLU).

Crouch and other CCLU representatives presented Pataki with a letter regarding the Rockefeller Drug Laws while Pataki visited Cornell during Homecoming Weekend last September. Under pressure to reassess the legislation, Pataki offered a proposal for drug law reform this year, but many say that the changes fall short of what is necessary.

Crouch and others will travel to Albany today to meet with State Sen. Jim Seward (R-50th), hoping to gain his support for a measure that has been popular with State Rep. Marty Luster (D-125th). Last November, the Tompkins County Board of Representatives unanimously passed a proposal by Luster to reform the State’s drug laws.

“Especially for a lot of upstate legislators, there is a perception that this is being driven by people in the city,” Crouch said.

In 1973, New York became the first state to impose mandatory sentencing for possession of narcotics. The legislation, enacted by then-Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, set a precedent for many other states fighting a “War on Drugs,” but the laws in New York remain among the most drastic in the nation. Currently, the highest penalty requires a judge to impose a mandatory minimum prison term of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of an illegal substance.

Crouch and other members of CCLU have coordinated their plans with the Columbia chapter of the Civil Liberties Union, and they have worked closely with the Tompkins County Interfaith Campaign to Reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws as well.

Local activists for drug reform argue that while the Rockefeller laws adversely affect people in Ithaca, they inflict greater damage on urban communities.

“The reality is that we are a lot less likely to get prosecuted than if we lived in the inner city,” said Pete Meyers, a local organizer for the Tompkins County group.

Supporters for repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws add that it is exceedingly expensive to maintain the high penalties when so many people are crowding the State’s prisons.

According to the Correctional Association of New York, it costs $30,000 to incarcerate a person for a drug violation. To treat the individuals found to have a drug abuse problem, it would cost $5,000.

“We should have treatment rather than putting people behind bars,” Meyers said.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch