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May 2008 -- Correctional Association (NY)

Drop the Rock and Assembly Mark 35 Years of Drug Law Injustice

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Advocates for drug law repeal rallied outside the Assembly's joint committee hearing in New York City on May 8th.

Thursday, May 8, marked the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York's notoriously harsh mandatory sentencing statues.

In a meaningful gesture, the State Assembly picked this day to hold a public hearing in New York City with the express purpose of examining what impact the laws have had on drug addiction and drug-related crime and to discuss the effectiveness of community-based, alternative to incarceration programs.

Six Assembly committees -- Codes, Corrections, Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Health, Judiciary, and Social Services -- jointly convened the event and a second hearing a week later in Rochester.

Promoters of Rockefeller Drug Law repeal, including members of the CA's Drop the Rock Coalition, presented testimony at the New York City hearing, while the CA and others -- including Fortune Society, Exponents, Drug Policy Alliance, New York Civil Liberties Union, and State Senator Eric Schneiderman -- rallied on the sidewalk outside.

The hearings came on the heels of a concentrated effort on the part of Drop the Rock to create public pressure and bring the issue back into the public spotlight.

The campaign has been ramping up its organizing and advocacy activities since the fall, convening coalition meetings, holding public forums, and publicizing data about the failure of the laws.

As the anniversary approached, the campaign organized a Drop the Rock advocacy day in Albany and launched the 35th Anniversary Petition, which aims to gather 35,000 signatures urging policymakers to support drug law repeal.

In early May, the campaign released a policy paper, presenting updated figures on the harsh effects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the rationale, including the statutes' continued racial bias, for why change is long overdue.

The hearings, and the Assembly's renewed scrutiny of New York's drug laws, are a step forward for Drop the Rock and its allies, but especially significant is how the Assembly is framing the debate this go-around.

With criminal justice and public health committees at the table for the first time on this issue, policymakers have begun to echo the view that the CA and others have been voicing for decades -- namely that drug offenders and the public are both better served by sentencing policy that favors community-based programs, like job training and drug treatment, over incarceration.

The hearing and rally received favorable press, with most articles recognizing David Paterson's new role as governor as a potentially positive development.

Paterson, historically an outspoken ally who was once arrested during a Drop the Rock civil disobedience protest outside Governor Pataki's offices, has until recently remained silent on this issue.

However, when asked during a May 22 WAMC radio interview about his plans as governor for drug law repeal, Paterson unequivocally answered, "I haven't changed my opinion on this one iota and certainly want to fight for Rockefeller Drug reform."

With momentum gathering in the Legislature and the advocacy community, support from the governor may help propel efforts to overturn the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all.

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