Albany seems to be on the verge of repealing the Rockefeller drug laws -- the draconian measures that resulted in imprisonment for many who had committed minor drug offenses.
It is an irony of history that Nelson Rockefeller, one of the most liberal governors New York ever had, was responsible for enacting these laws -- among the toughest in the nation. The statutes required judges to impose mandatory prison sentences for the unlawful possession and sale of controlled substances.
There was no discretion for judges. They had to impose a sentence of 15 years to life in prison for anyone convicted of selling two ounces, or possessing four ounces of a narcotic drug. No mitigating circumstances were considered. The idea was that rehabilitation efforts had failed and only the threat of mandatory penalties could stem the epidemic of drug use.
It was 1973, and Rockefeller was planning a run for the Presidency in 1976. His advisers told him it was important to project an image of toughness to the rest of the country.
Only, two years before, in 1971, Rockefeller had ordered 1,000 police and national guardsmen to storm Attica Prison, after a revolt by prisoners. In this situation, too, Rockefeller seemed to be projecting toughness, strength. He refused to meet with the leaders of the revolt. I was outside the prison gates when the order to attack came and the first tear gas grenades were heaved over the walls.
Many of us, including a committee that was trying to mediate the dispute, feared the worst. And it happened. More than 40 people died, including 11 of 38 police and Guard hostages held by the prisoners.
But, if Rockefeller expected to rally conservative Republicans to his side, he failed – both at Attica and with the drug laws. Supporters of Barry Goldwater, who howled their disapproval of the liberal governor in '64, were unconvinced by the drug laws. Gerald Ford picked him for vice president after President Nixon resigned, but Rockefeller was dropped from the ticket in '76. Rockefeller never tried for the presidency again.
Now, the news from Albany is that there's a serious chance that the Rockefeller drug laws may be overturned. The Assembly has acted, 96 to 46, to restore judges' discretion to many lower-level drug possession crimes. The Senate, where the Democrats now have a narrow margin, is considering the issue. Gov. David Paterson is on board, too, although his proposed bill is different than the Assembly's.
It seems that the time is right for repeal. As Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says: "the stars are aligned. Its time has come."
Under the different bills being considered, the judges will have a choice for young drug offenders -- prison time or rehabilitation. The overwhelming sentiment in Albany and, among many judges who have been forced to send young offenders to jail, is to favor rehabilitation over incarceration.
A couple of generations of young people have been lost to the angry, conservative wave of the 70s when drug users and addicts were treated as criminals. The irony was -- and remains -- that Nelson Rockefeller, a man who was devoted to humanitarian acts during his distinguished career, gave his name to these oppressive laws.
I covered Nelson Rockefeller during his 14 years in office. He was a warm-hearted, glad-handing politician who seemed to love people. Guided by his pal, the longtime Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, when he first ran for office, Rocky, as the tabloids called him, campaigned gleefully on the lower East Side, learning about matzoh ball soup and other Jewish delicacies, even as he enjoyed Hispanic and African-American cooking too. The paradox of his career was that the drug laws were offset by liberal initiatives on economic issues, expanding the state's infrastructure, taking progressive stands on environmental issues and many other matters. He was respectful of organized labor, He advocated strong participation in the United Nations.
The crowning irony of his career is that these laws, which targeted unmercifully some of those least able to defend themselves, are his legacy. He was caught up in the politics of his time -- those of us who knew him remained convinced that he was a good guy. The paradox is that although he cared about people, these laws were unjust. It's late but we can hope the time is right --and, at long last, an oppressive era will be over.