The Broken Families of Our Broken Drug Laws

By Randy Credico
Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union

As someone who works daily with families of the victims of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, I remain cautiously optimistic as talks of reforming this 28 year experiment in medieval punishment continue to be bandied about in Albany. Since Governor Pataki's announced his intent to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws in January, the Kunstler Fund has received calls around the clock from family members wanting to know when their loved ones might be coming home. The tragic reality is that unless the Governor, not only adopts, but, goes beyond the more rational Assembly proposal the answer is not soon.

Nellie Rivera calls every day. She has cancer and would like to see her daughter, Maritza, one last time before passing on. Mrs. Rivera hasn't seen her daughter since 1991 when Maritza was sent away for 15 years to life for possessing four ounces of cocaine.

Evelyn Sanchez would like to know when her son might be coming home. He is doing 33 years to life for a first-time drug offense. A deeply religious woman who also is battling cancer, Mrs. Sanchez has given up and is waiting until the afterlife to be with her only child.

Doreen Pecora most certainly would like to know when her daughter, a > first-time drug offender, is coming home. Her daughter, Nadine, is in prison and suffering from cancer, while Mrs. Pecora takes care of her three children. The children used to visit her once a month up at Bedford Hills. Now that Nadine has been transferred to the medium-security correctional facility on the Canadian border at Albion, they haven't seen her in two years.

Six months in a treatment center would have cured Nadine's addiction and most assuredly would have paved a better road for her children's future.

Eileen Flournoy, 75, is not so sure that she'll last long enough to see her daughter Veronica get out of prison and resume the role of raising her children. The elder Flournoy still wonders why Queens District Attorney Richard Brown didn't offer Veronica drug treatment rather than eight years in a maximum-security prison.

What did he think was going to happen to these two infants? All things considered, the kids are fine, but they do miss their mother.

Wheelchair-bound Norma Arenas can't leave her apartment, let alone visit her son and only living relative Miguel up at Green Haven. The U.S. airman is midway through a 15 years-to-life sentence. Norma, 75, is lonely and depressed, and prays and prays daily for the return of her boy.

Norma is consoled by another Cuban immigrant, Hilda Garcia, who understands the pain too well. Her husband Eduardo spent the last 10 years of his life in the medical wing of Green Haven prison for a minor role in a low-level drug offense.

These gut-renching Rockefeller drug law stories are endless and, contrary to what some politicians would like the public to believe, they are not merely anecdotal. From groups as diverse as the Catholic Bishops of New York to the original sponsors of the 1973 laws, there are many who would like to see reform.

The only exception appears to be New York's 62 district attorneys, of whom all but one is white.

Pataki has nothing to lose and everything to gain by closing this ugly chapter in New York's criminal justice history. He has a chance to reverse these unjust mandatory minimums without the threat of negative political fallout. However, unless he accepts a reform plan that offers relief to many of those already serving draconian sentences, as the modest Assembly proposal does, it won't affect the majority of families.

Any scheme that ignores them, as Pataki's proposed legislation currently
does, is not real reform.

I suggest that Pataki take a look at his Illinois counterpart, Gov. George Ryan. Since imposing a moratorium on his state's use of the death penalty last year, his popularity appears to have risen and he has earned himself a mention in U.S. history books. Pataki has an opportunity to join him. It would be nice for the children of Nadine Pecora, Maritza Santos and Veronica Flournoy to someday read about the governor of New York, who saved their lives and the lives of thousands of other children.

Randy Credico is the director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice in New York City.