Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘Rockefeller drug laws’

How a politician publicly supports shortening sentences for drug dealers, and survives anyway

In Criminal Justice Policy, New York State Government, New York State Politics, NYC Politics, Policy on September 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm

In my first few years representing the 45th Assembly District, constituents regularly called me to complain about drug dealers peddling their wares in front of a building on Avenue K near Coney Island Avenue. The building stood just a block northern of my district, but the unsavory atmosphere there troubled my nearby voters. In response, I would call the captain of Brooklyn’s 70th Police Precinct, who would send officers to make arrests.

However, weeks later my constituents would call again, complaining that “they let the drug dealers out: they are back on Avenue K again.”

Back in Albany, Speaker Fink asked members of our Democratic caucus who similarly complained that judges let drug dealers go free how, then, we managed to increase our state prison population from 12,500 in 1972 to 40,000 by the early 1980s? I think he understood, and I gradually learned, that judges did lock up many of those drug dealers. Other drug dealers just replaced them very quickly, because so many addicts wanted those jobs to help pay for their own supplies.

Indeed, many a judge would sentence a drug dealer, after a first felony arrest, to time served waiting for trial and probation. But the addicted dealer, quickly back on the street, would be just as quickly arrested again. This time, the Second Felony Offender Law would require the judge to sentence the dealer to prison for at least two years.

In an earlier time, dealers peddling heroin would try to carry too small a quantity at a time to constitute “felony weight,” so that judges could continue to sentence them to probation. But dealers in the cocaine and crack era seemed to have less sense, and generally carried large enough quantities to be hit with felonies.

I began to understand that with about 600,000 addicts in the State, we would never run short of drug dealers. With 40,000 inmates, we needed to cannibalize higher education funding to help defray the cost of the State prison system; we could not very well incarcerate several hundred thousand inmates and keep the State solvent. Therefore, massive incarceration of low-level non-violent addict/sellers was not going to solve our drug problem.

Like voters throughout New York City and New York State at the time, mine were not generally anxious to hear that we should stop locking up drug dealers. But I told them anyway. Because I had consistently voted for the death penalty (a decision I made then to help preserve the legitimacy of the State government in the face of an increasingly rebellious citizenry), because I had championed other initiatives sought by law enforcement, even in the face of opposition by my own Democratic Assembly leaders, and because I had helped and supported my constituents on landlord-tenant issues, consumer issues, property tax issues, and transportation issues, I was able to carry my message without jeopardizing my reelection. I may even have persuaded some.

When arguing with my constituents, however, I tried to couch the message not so much in terms of the criminalization of people who did not fit standard criminal profiles except in terms of feeding their addictions, the destruction of families, the waste of human lives, or the unfair treatment suffered by minorities. Rather, I pointed to the need to use expensive prison space for violent criminals, the increased tax burden, and the decrease in college scholarship aid likely to be available to their children.

I did not succeed in enacting my legislation to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Eleven years after I left the Legislature, though, others completed that mission. I like to think that I helped lay the groundwork.

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Why I Ran to be Brooklyn District Attorney

In NYC Politics on February 10, 2012 at 12:39 pm

When it became clear that Liz Holtzman would run for New York City Comptroller, I decided to try to succeed her as Brooklyn District Attorney. As chair of the Assembly Correction Committee, I spent time in most of the State’s prisons. I saw the tremendous waste of lives and money produced by the prosecution and incarceration of massive numbers of low-level non-violent drug offenders under the Rockefeller drug laws. I also saw the political need of upstate senators to keep prisons full in their districts in order to provide at least some correction officer jobs to ameliorate the economic disaster tormenting their region. I knew that they would therefore frustrate my efforts to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws for a long time to come. At least as Brooklyn D.A. I could choose other prosecutorial priorities.

Also, Brooklyn had nineteen other Assembly members, but only one D.A. Reasons of ego played a role.

Charles “Joe” Hynes had recently won convictions of three white Howard Beach defendants who had caused the death of Michael Griffith, one of four black men chased by those defendants into moving traffic apparently because they stood out in that overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Mario Cuomo had appointed Hynes as special prosecutor in the case because prosecution witnesses had refused to cooperate with Queens District Attorney John Santucci, whom they viewed as too close to his Howard Beach constituency. The case garnered tremendous attention and publicity.

Rampant rumors had Hynes entering the race. But this did not deter me. My friends told me that Hynes voted out of his residence in Breezy Point, where he spent his summers, a few miles west of where I grew up in the Rockaways, in Queens, although he lived in Brooklyn the rest of the year. I thought we would be able to disqualify him as a legal resident of Queens, based on his voting record. However, when I sent campaign workers to the Queens Board of Elections, no voting records for Hynes could be located. Nor could we locate any in Brooklyn.

Still, Mel Miller said “No Hynes beats no Feldman in Brooklyn.” Based on traditional voting patterns, this should have been true. For a long time, Jewish turnout in Democrat primaries had been decisive in Brooklyn. Also, I thought my strong pro-prosecution record would serve me well: author of the Organized Crime Control Act, Oral Search Warrant Law, Juror Shield Law; a yes-vote on the death penalty when that was still a hot and popular issue; the leader of the unsuccessful, but law-enforcement-backed campaign to change New York’s criminal-friendly transactional immunity law to use immunity (read Tales from the Sausage Factory for an explanation of this technical but important effort).

When Howard Golden, Brooklyn’s Democratic County Leader and Borough President, had pleaded with me to take a job I did not want, Democratic district leader, I had accommodated him. I had also supported his re-election when Marty Markowitz challenged him in the 1985 primary.  I thought he owed me some support. Further, seventeen of my nineteen fellow Brooklyn Assembly members endorsed me – all except Al Vann and Frank Barbaro. Schumer endorsed me at my special request, in an effort to reduce the friction between us. Two of Brooklyn’s three other Members of Congress, Ed Towns and Steve Solarz, endorsed me as well. I had helped Major Owens win his congressional seat against his then fellow State Senator Vander Beatty, but of the congressional delegation, only he refused to endorse me. The law did not permit Holtzman, as a sitting District Attorney, to make a political endorsement, but she did appoint me to her Advisory Committee.

Norman Adler, my old college political science teacher and the extraordinarily intelligent political director of District Council 37 of AFSCME, a major public sector union, agreed to advise my campaign, as a friend, for very little money — $5000, with another $10,000 payable when I won. Hank Sheinkopf had been a police officer and a student of mine when I taught administrative law as an adjunct professor at John Jay College in 1977. Now his star was rising in political advertising, which he would handle for me. I had a lot going for me, I thought. I worried mostly about raising money.

Excerpts from Tales from the Sausage Factory: We Need the Legislature, Good or Bad – or Good and Bad

In New York State Government on September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

By March 2010, one State Senator darkly joked that he longed for the days of “dysfunction” – at least it “has function in its title.”

It is hard to imagine, but about forty years earlier the New York State Legislature . . .was considered a model of institutional professionalism. In a 1971 report, it was one of four that received the highest ranking available from the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. (The others were California, Illinois and Florida.)

Quinnipiac University polls New Yorkers’ attitudes toward “the way the state legislature is handling its job,” and regularly finds – urban, suburban or rural, male or female, upstate or down – that less than a third approve.

Does the Legislature deserve all the disapprobation that is heaped on it? Some say not. Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash, for instance, has said the idea that the New York State Legislature is dysfunctional a “myth.” According to Stonecash, “what takes place in Albany is just normal haggling over policy.” Long-time Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County, has asserted in The New York Times “Although in the last few years there have been things the Legislature has had to improve, most things we do well.”

Brodsky went on to attribute the New York State Legislature’s problematic reputation to bad public relations. “We’ve been very effectively Swift-boated as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt,” he said. “And it’s our fault. We have never gotten the message out in a coherent way of what we do well and right.”

Stonecash and Brodsky overstate the case. The legislature has been performing dismally, and is in major need of reform. But, to be fair, [Feldman and Benjamin remind us, drawing upon Feldman’s eighteen years of service in the Assembly and writing in his voice,] state legislators do some things well.

Good or bad – good AND bad – we need it

Legislatures are not simply arenas for rational problem solving. They are places in which society’s emotional and psychological needs are manifested, manipulated and addressed.

Efforts to change laws are meaningful. The bills introduced to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, for instance, and the widely publicized arguments by politicians who supported them – did constitute a kind of “official” response. The fact that some part of the government – the legislators advancing reform ideas – is “trying to make things better” can bring satisfaction to members of the public who want change. Society is stronger when we have faith in our democratic institutions.

I'm just a bill

On the other hand, efforts without outcomes over many years are delegitimizing, as we have seen in the corrosive effects of New York State’s persistently late budgets. A regularly demonstrated incapacity to reach a result inevitably undermines public confidence in government. Comparative high taxation, questionable state fiscal health, and regional unemployment also contribute to voter hostility.

As we seek to appreciate the Legislature’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, the institution defies definitive characterization. Like all political institutions, it continues to evolve – sometimes in mysterious ways. For those who care about government and policymaking, the mystery is part of the attraction.