Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council Attends Historic Signing of Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Ruth Hassell-Thompson

May 06, 2009

Ceremony was attended by Governor Paterson, Russell Simmons, NY State Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, Congressman Charles Rangel, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, Assemblywoman Vivian Cook, Senator Eric Schneiderman, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Senator Hiram Monserrat, Councilman Tom White and a host of others.


April 27, 2009, New York, NY--After 36 years of "Blood, Sweat and Tears" the Draconian, Rockefeller Drug laws, which destroyed many families and communities, have officially been erased off the books in New York State. On April 7th, the drug law reform bill was signed into law ( Chapter 56 of the Laws of 2009 ), as part of the budget legislation for 2009-2010. The laws were championed and passed by the late Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller on May 8, 1973 in what was considered a bold response to what he said was needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." Many states followed the lead of New York filling prisons with many low-level offenders and addicts, placing a strain on taxpaying citizens. In years to follow, many states moved to roll back the mandatory minimum sentences, but New York kept its laws on the books leaving prosecutors, as opposed to judges, with the sole discretion of whether offenders could receive treatment or an alternative to prison.


Minority families have been disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller drug laws, which were the harshest in the country. Research shows that even though drug use is equally proportionate between races, 94% of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws are African American and Hispanic, who collectively comprise of only 32% of the State’s population. Drug offenders make up one-fifth of the state's male inmates and one-third of the female inmates. More than 90% of them are black or Latino and about 40% are incarcerated for possession charges.


Charles Fisher, Founder and Chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council stated that "As voting and taxpaying citizens it our responsibility to change the laws and ineffective policies. When I heard the news that Gov. David A. Paterson , New York State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver had finally reached an agreement to dismantle much of what remains of the Rockefeller drug laws, which were amongst the toughest in the nation, I knew that the prayers of many had finally been answered. Over the last 10 years I have worked with several groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, Russell Simmons and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, ACORN, Drop the Rock, King of Kings Foundation, Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, NuLeadership on Urban Solutions and a host of elected officials and community leaders to make reform a reality. When I spoke to then minority leader Malcolm Smith in Albany at the February 2008 Black and Puerto Rican Caucus weekend, he told me that if he became Majority Leader the Rockefeller drug laws would be one of his top priorities, and he kept his word to me, his district and the citizens of New York. Even though Majority Leader Smith was the final nail in the coffin for Rockefeller reform, it was the tireless work of Jeffrion Aubry and the Democratic Assembly that motivated me to continue to be relentless for change. It is true that a lot of people and groups played an important role towards reform, but it is through the work of Majority Leader Smith and Assemblyman Aubry, 2 Queens Natives, along with Governor Paterson, that after 36 years a new chapter for reform is now born."


"In 2003 we worked with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and the Countdown to Fairness Coalition to educate and organize youths in schools and communities throughout the city for what will surely go down as the largest rally in the history of this state to protest the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The event was attended by an estimated 70,000 people and sent a message to elected officials that the people want a drug policy change. In attendance were a host of stars like Jay-Z, P. Diddy, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Erykah Badu, Rev. Run, and Mariah Carey. To educate our youth and the public about the draconian drug laws we released the "King of Kings" Documentary and Double CD soundtrack in 2005. It highlighted the dangers of drugs, as well as the inequalities of the Rockefeller and Federal drug laws. As a result of our DVD, CD and the work of many others, twice during that year the laws were amended, but still fell short of the victory that we all had hoped for. The next phase of our mission in 2006 was to work with Senator Malcolm Smith who made a commitment to the youth and young adults in his district for real reform. We knew that the best way to affect change was to replace the leadership at the executive branch and the Senate. Thanks to the will of educated voters, as well as a strong political and community partnership the move for reform is now history. Yes there is still work to be done, but the foundation for change is now in place" ended Randy Fisher, Executive Director of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council.


Many activists believe that upstate Republicans oppose the reforms because prisons are one of the few sources of steady jobs in the region, whose economy has been slumping since the 1970s. In 1973, when they passed the Rockefeller drug laws, New York State had 18 prisons. Between 1973 and 1999 the State has built 51 new facilities. This is proof that the Prison Industrial Complex is reaping huge benefits off the backs of the less fortunate and at the expense of the taxpayers. " It’s sad but America leads the world in consuming illegal drugs and incarcerating its citizens. So it should be no surprise that we continue to lose the War on Drugs at the expense of our children. It is my hope that with these new reforms, a shift in political power, initiatives like the Read 2 Succeed Through Hip-Hop project and Operation S.N.U.G., we will be able to make our schools and communities safer and more productive for our children" stated Charles Fisher.


"We’re putting judges in the position to determine sentences based on the facts of a case, and not on mandatory minimum sentences," said Jeffrion L. Aubry, an assemblyman from Queens who for many years has led the effort for repeal. "To me, that is the restoration of justice." To show respect for his tireless work the Governor requested to have the official signing in Aubry’s district, at a drug rehabilitation program, Elmcor, where Aubry was the executive director. This symbolic gesture meant a lot to Jeff, his collogues and the entire community who know the special effort he has made to make the dream of Rockefeller reform a reality.


"This is a proud day for me and so many of my colleagues who have fought for so long to overhaul the drug laws and restore judicial discretion in narcotics cases," said New York State Governor David Paterson, who was arrested for an act of civil disobedience against the old laws in 2002. "We are reforming these laws to treat those who suffer from addiction and to punish those who profit from it because penalties have been toughened for drug kingpins" ended Paterson. The bill also revives the Rockefeller law’s original 15-years-to-life sentences, this time for "kingpins" convicted of selling more than $75,000 worth of drugs.


"Rockefeller Drug Law reform will reverse years of ineffective criminal laws, protect communities and save taxpayers millions of dollars that were wasted on the current policy. With more money going toward treatment instead of costly imprisonment, our State will finally have a smarter policy, giving families a fighting chance in the war on drugs." said State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith .


The Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats, has routinely passed legislation that repealed mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes, but the republican controlled Senate always failed to pass the Bill until this year, thanks to a Democratic controlled Senate. Passing drug law revisions have given the Senate Democrats a legislative victory when Republicans are accusing them of being disorganized and ineffective. Senator Eric T. Schneiderman , a Manhattan Democrat who has led the effort in the Senate to overhaul the drug statutes, said he was confident he had support in the Senate to pass the plan. "It’s no secret the Senate’s old majority was the primary barrier to reforming our drug laws," he said. "But this is one of the reasons we fought so hard to take the majority. This is what our supporters have expected us to do."


Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson said "Today, the Governor and the Legislature have agreed on a major change in public policy. We have created a balanced approach to drug addiction and crime. Our ability to reduce the flow of drugs in our communities is dependent on our ability to reduce the demand. We are now shifting resources to treat drug addiction as a medical problem. By diverting addicts to drug treatment courts, we believe we can get people off drugs and thereby reduce the demand for them. Studies show that our policies will make our communities safer and save the taxpayers millions".


"This is a great day and long overdue because there are families that have been suffering for years because of these unfair policies. I’m happy to be associated with those that have worked for decades to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws and I’m just glad that I could do my part. Over the years, I have enjoyed working with the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council and have supported their work to educate students about the drug laws, substance abuse, the importance of voting and how to get politicians to make the right changes to improve lives like they have done today." Stated Russell Simmons.


We are experiencing the worst economic crisis since the great depression and the state is suffering from a budget deficit of $15 billion New York spends more than $500 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders. Right now there are approximately 12,000 non-violent drug offenders in prison, costing at least $45,000 a year to house each. In contrast, the annual cost in a residential drug treatment facility is approximately $30,000, while outpatient treatment is just $13,000. Democratic lawmakers estimate the reforms will save taxpayers $250 million a year from the cost of housing prisoners, taking note that the minimal changes enacted in 2004 alone have saved the state $100 million.


For information about the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the READ 2 SUCCEED THROUGH HIP-HOP project, and Operation S.N.U.G. contact the number above or the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council at 212-316-7639.