Monday, May 27, 2013

How the Minimum Prison Sentence in NY State Got to Be 15 Years for Selling Two Ounces of Marijuana

NYT explains in the obituary of William Fine, who died on Friday at the age of 86:
His biggest impact on history resulted from a dinner party conversation with [Gov.Nelson] Rockefeller in early 1972, according to Joseph E. Persico, a former Rockefeller aide, in his book “Imperial Rockefeller” (1982).

At that party, Mr. Persico wrote, Mr. Fine told Rockefeller that his son had been a drug addict and that he himself yearned to do something to fight addiction. He was already chairman of Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation program.

Rockefeller suggested that Mr. Fine visit Japan, where there was very little addiction, and report to him. Rockefeller focused on one aspect of Mr. Fine’s report: Japan’s imposition of life sentences on drug dealers.

Mr. Fine praised the Japanese for being “willing to give up the soapbox movement on human rights in order to rid the public of the evil abuses of drugs.”

This hard-nosed approach appealed to the governor, who was receiving much mail questioning whether the civil liberties of criminals were taking precedence over the prosecution of drug dealers. Rockefeller had also expressed frustration that New York had spent more than $1 billion on drug treatment and education programs, with little apparent effect.

There was a political aspect to his stance as well. At another party, Mr. Fine had a conversation with Mr. Reagan, then the governor of California. Mr. Reagan — who like Rockefeller was considering a run for the presidency in 1976 — was intrigued to hear about Mr. Fine’s report and asked for a copy. Mr. Fine asked Rockefeller, who was also at the party, if he would mind sharing the report with Mr. Reagan. Rockefeller refused.

“This thunderbolt,” Mr. Persico wrote of Rockefeller, “was to be hurled by him.”

On May 8, 1973, Rockefeller signed legislation mandating minimum prison sentences of 15 years for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin, cocaine or marijuana. The legislation was the toughest in the country, and increased the state’s prison population 500 percent over the next 20 years.

In recent years, the so-called Rockefeller drug laws have been relaxed after it was determined that they did not decrease drug use and that they crowded prisons with small-time dealers and users, who are overwhelmingly minorities.

(ht   Andrew Kunian)

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