HIP-HOP SHAKES ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS
NEW YORK'S notoriously tough "Rockefeller" drug laws are to be relaxed after a grassroots campaign led by the rap mogul known as the "Godfather of hip-hop". State legislators voted on Tuesday to scale back mandatory sentences under the stringent drug laws passed during the crime wave of the early 1970s, which could send a person to jail for life for possessing just 4oz of heroin or cocaine.
The reform cut sentences for first-time non-violent offenders from fifteen years' minimum to eight, with the possibility of more than a year off for good behaviour. At the same time, the amount of heroin or cocaine required to make possession a Class A-1 felony is doubled from 4oz to 8oz.
The harsh drug laws -- among the toughest in the United States -- were introduced by Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York, in 1973-74, as the state lost control of its inner cities to an epidemic of heroin addiction.
Critics said that the Rockefeller laws threw too many low-level offenders in jail and hit ethnic minorities disproportionately hard, but Republicans fought hard over the years to keep the laws in place.
New York's falling crime rate made it politically possible for the state legislature to take another look. Pressure for reform was particularly strong among the black community, which has seen generations of small-time drug dealers sent away for long prison terms.
Leading the charge was the Hip-hop Action Summit, a group created and chaired by Russell Simmons, the rap impresario whose Def Jam Recordings helped to launch the careers of artists such as the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Public Enemy.
Mr Simmons's own older brother, Daniel, and his longtime driver served time under the Rockefeller laws. "We are very happy and proud of all of the support and efforts by hip-hop artists and other community activists that helped to bring about today's agreement to reform the Rockefeller drug laws," Mr Simmons said. "Of course, we wanted more, but itA's as much as we could have realistically hoped for and we finally broke the stalemate."
The repeal did not satisfy reformers' demands for judges to have discretion in sentencing and to be able to send offenders to drug treatment instead of prison. The change will enable about 400 inmates in jail serving the harshest Rockefeller sentences to ask the courts to cut their prison time in line with new guidelines.
David Townsend Jr, a Republican assemblyman from upstate Oneida, mocked the reforms as a "get-out-of-jail-free card" that will free the "worst of the worst".