Half Nelson


Yesterday the New York legislature finally got around to approving changes in the Rockefeller drug laws, which have set the standard for harsh mandatory sentences since 1973. The reforms are predictably modest. The penalty for first-time offenders convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin or cocaine, for instance, will now be eight to 20 years rather than 15 years to life. And the law still requires prison time for lower-level, nonviolent first-time offenders. The New York Times reports:

A study by the Democrats in the State Senate found that New York imposed the harshest penalties in the nation for low-level drug offenders. It found that 32 states, including Texas and Florida, offer probation to nonviolent offenders who sell small amounts of drugs, and that New York was the only state that required more than three years in prison for such offenses.

Still, the changes, which may allow hundreds of prisoners to gain their freedom, are better than nothing–except to the extent that they relieve pressure for more-serious reforms.

NEXT: Grape Expectations

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  1. This is a thoroughly unhelpful comment on my part, but Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” deals with, among a number of more profound issues, Rockefeller drug laws and the titantic burden beared by those affected by their draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines. Fantastic movie.

  2. I used to live upstate NY. I remember leaning in health class that NY had “pass the joint” laws making the ‘sale’ of less than two grams a misdemeanor. So I had the idea that NY was more relaxed. Never had any problems buying pot there. In fact, I still go there to buy my pot.

  3. The NY marijuana laws are more lax than most of the country fot possesion. Small possesion is decriminalized in NY so that it is only a violation, less serious than a misdermenor, where the first offense penalty is a maximum fine of $250 or so.

  4. What’s left of upstate New York’s economy depends heavily on a steady flow of prisoners to their many jails. I can’t imagine that there are many folks upstate who are happy about anything that may cause their numbers to drop, except the prisoners themselves….

  5. Rhywun,
    That’s a silly thing to say. While there are good points to be made, (e.g. counting prisoners as residents for redistricting while not allowing them to vote) suggesting that the economies of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse “depends heavily on a steady flow of prisoners” is patently false.

  6. Paranoid style: they’re not just wrong, they’re evil. The policies they work for aren’t just bad, but part of a nefarious plot.

  7. Warren,
    The districting is of course a huge issue, and I don’t know of any serious examination of the flow of tax dollars, but I was working with the drug reform group ReconsiDer at the New York State Fair in 2003. We had a petition out asking New York legislators to fundamentally reconsider the incarceration based approach to drug policy. One person I asked to sign it said to me, “Ha..I’m a corrections officer..You want me to sign your petition? Put myself out of a job? Where else am I going to get $52,000 a year to sit on my ass?” With something like 30,000 Rockefeller prisoners, there has to be a pretty good size support staff to keep the prisons up and running – jobs, jobs, jobs.

  8. OK, maybe hyperbole, but definitely not “patently false”. I spent my first 26 years there, and upstate NY consists of much more than just Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, as I’m sure you know. Many industries have shut down, most commerce has moved to the suburbs, and in many rural areas the only growing sector of the economy is the prison system.

  9. As a resident of Rochester, I must sadly agree with Rhywun. Though if Kodak survives the transition from film to digital, we may be the Seattle of the 2010s…

  10. Heh – I’m from Rochester myself, so I had in mind the prison industry as the “Kodak of rural upstate”: everyone either works there or knows somebody who does…

  11. crimethink,
    I don’t see how Kodak can make that happen. What are they going to sell? Not cameras or optics, not software or hardware. All those things belong to companies who already do them better than Kodak can. The only thing they got is film, the only product I can see are those printers that print your digital pics onto Kodak film. I don’t see a whole lot of money in that.

    I had higher hopes for Xerox. They were way to slow in making the digital transition (even as they saw it coming) but there still is and will continue to be a huge market in document handling. I think they could own the lions share of the scan/copy/print market. With good management that would necessarily expand them into email and database as well.

  12. Yeah, watching Kodak slide into ultimate irrelevancy has been a long, sad affair for me and my family. I suppose the company itself will survive in some form, but not by employing Rochesterians.

  13. I suspect y’all may be right about Kodak. Luckily I do not depend on them directly, though I doubt any part of our local economy is unaffected by the K and X decline.

    Still … Paychex is doin’ great!

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