Judging Rockefeller

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New York’s mandatory 15-year jail terms for anyone convicted of drug possession or sale are “outrageous,” “an absolute barbarous atrocity,” and “cruel and inhuman.” Those aren’t the words of angry street protesters, but come direct from the mouths of some of New York State’s highest judges, as laid out in a new report from the Correctional Association of New York.

The study compiles criticisms from judges of the state’s punitive Rockefeller drug laws, named for Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who signed the legislation in 1973. Over the last 18 years, says the Correctional Association, courts have sentenced tens of thousands of New Yorkers to at least 15 years behind bars, the minimum jail time required under the law for possession and sale of drugs. A New Yorker found with four ounces of narcotics in his pocket could face life in prison

“It’s probably a better gamble to kill somebody…than to sell cocaine,” said Nassau County Supreme Court Judge George F.X. McInerney in a 2000 press interview after he handed down a mandatory 15-year sentence. He later told a lawyer who complained to him about the ruling, “Write your legislator.”

After his colleagues sentenced a defendant to 9 to 16 years for selling $10 worth of crack to an undercover officer in 1991, former Appellate Division Justice John Carro called the decision “unduly severe.”

The Correctional Association hopes the words of these justices will help boost its campaign to overturn the laws. Says Executive Director Robert Gangi, “New York’s judges particularly object to mandatory sentencing provisions that hamper their ability to dispense justice.”