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Rally Protests N.Y. Drug Laws

Hip-hoppers join thousands demanding repeal of harsh penalties for narcotics use, sale.

June 05, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Attracted by some of the biggest names in hip-hop, thousands of protesters rallied Wednesday to demand repeal of laws that can send first-time offenders to prison for up to life for possessing or selling small quantities of drugs.

"It's time to drop the Rock," the crowd chanted, referring to statutes passed 30 years ago during the administration of former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The shouts grew louder when such favorites as Fat Joe, Jay-Z and Sean "P Diddy" Combs appeared on stage to urge Gov. George E. Pataki and the state Legislature to abandon the laws.

"We are going to win on this issue in the next few days," predicted Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario, who was a principal rally organizer and met with the governor and legislative leaders this week on the issue.

"We are not here advocating drug use," Simmons told the crowd, made up mostly of teenagers, near City Hall. "We know that drug dealers who are violent should be punished."

But, he said, people seized with small amounts of drugs should not be in jail "for longer than rapists and murderers."

Under the so-called Rockefeller laws, which opponents say are among the nation's stiffest, a judge must impose a prison term of no less than 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Opponents say the penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the character of the defendant.

Prosecutors oppose major changes, saying the number of defendants who actually receive stiff mandatory sentences for minor offenses is small. Most cases result in plea bargains, they point out, and first-time offenders may receive probation in some instances.

The threat of a harsher mandatory sentence remains a useful form of leverage, prosecutors added, especially in persuading a member of a drug gang to identify his compatriots.

Pataki and legislative leaders agree that sentences for low-level addicts and minor sellers who are not repeat offenders are too tough, but differ on what role the courts should play.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, wants judges to have greater discretion in sentencing. Pataki has said that he wants prosecutors to retain influence in sentencing, but would grant judges greater leeway than they have now.

"Everyone for the last three or four years says the laws need to be reformed," said Deborah P. Small, director of public policy and community outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to limit what it contends are draconian drug laws.

Small said the key issue remains giving judges the discretion "to divert people from prison to treatment and to impose more reasonable sentences."

Prosecutors argue, however, that the laws help keep drug dealers out of neighborhoods.

"People who end up in state prison for drug offenses are by and large drug sellers, and by and large repeat offenders," said a veteran New York city narcotics prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "While everyone would be amenable to some reform, you don't want to do away with mandatory sentences."

The rally was sponsored by the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network; Mothers for the New York Disappeared, a family group; and two former gubernatorial candidates, Andrew Cuomo and Thomas Golisano.

Sponsors had hoped for a crowd of 100,000, but said between 20,000 and 60,000 participated. Police did not issue an official estimate.

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