The Ending of the Rockefeller Drug Penalties Is Not an Open Door

February 9, 2005


EDFORD HILLS, N.Y. - If any group of prison inmates has attracted public sympathy, it was the women whose first brush with the law left them locked up here for 15 years or more on drug charges.

Few newspaper articles or television reports about New York's Rockefeller-era drug laws were complete without a visit to the state's only maximum security prison for women, for an interview with an inmate longing to go home to her family.

But the much-heralded changes to the drug laws that took effect last month will free at most 10 of those women, and probably fewer than that, in the near term. The new law does not allow them to challenge their convictions, but it does reduce mandatory sentences that critics said were longer than those meted out to some murderers.

While the new drug laws have pleased some women in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where all 10 of those women are held, there is also disappointment here that so few of the prison's 850 inmates will be going home.

One of those likely to be freed, Brenda Prather of Rochester, described the feelings of her fellow inmates this way: "They're happy that I'm leaving. But they're crying inside. Because they're missing me and at the same time they're wishing it was them. It's really sad.

"Experts say a range of factors explain why so few women - at most 1 percent of the female drug-crime inmates - are likely to benefit from the change. They include limits to the revisions, the makeup of the prison population, the focus of the governor's clemency program and the complexity of the cases that landed some of the women in prison.

Some advocates of prison reform say that by publicizing the most egregious cases, and focusing on the most seemingly sympathetic prisoners, they may have inadvertently limited the assistance for the vast majority of women jailed on drug charges.

"A little, we got hoisted on our own petard," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a privately funded prison oversight group that has been active in the effort to reform the Rockefeller-era laws. "It was too handy a tool, too obvious a tool to make your case.

"Women are not representative of the overall prison population; they account for fewer than 5 percent of those held in New York State prisons, according to data from the state's Department of Correctional Services. A slightly larger percentage of low-level drug offenders are women, about 7 percent.

But of the prisoners sentenced on the most serious drug charges, the A-1 felonies, only about 2 percent - 10 out of 446 - are women. Their number was higher a few years ago, but it has been reduced both by Gov. George E. Pataki's clemency grants and by fairly recent changes that allow top-level drug prisoners to apply for parole earlier than in the past if they participate in special programs.

And it is the top-level felons who received the most dramatic help under the revisions to the drug laws, which Governor Pataki signed in December.The new legislation shortens the sentences for the most serious drug sale or possession crimes to between 8 and 25 years, from a mandatory minimum of 15 years to life.

The new law also allows prisoners convicted of those top-level felonies under the old system to apply to courts for resentencing.

But judges may not be sympathetic toward female inmates with, for example, poor prison records, while in other cases district attorneys may object to drastic reductions. At least two of the women still in Bedford Hills fled before their trials; one violated the terms of her parole, and the other was a parole officer when she was arrested on charges of selling cocaine to someone who worked in her office.

And some, like Shanaye Hughley, may not have served enough time to win release even under a reduced sentence. Ms. Hughley, 22, was sentenced last year to 15 years to life; prosecutors said she profited from a family-run drug operation in a public housing project in Queens.

She is appealing her conviction. Although she had agreed to talk to a reporter, prison officials said she was confined to her quarters because of a rule violation.

Other inmates have such tangled pasts that it was unclear what might happen if and when they ask for new sentences. One is Severiana Jacquez, whose case is "an enigma in a jigsaw in a puzzle," said Randy Credico, director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which plans to represent her in court.Ms. Jacquez, 52, was sentenced in absentia to 17 years to life in 1991. Prosecutors said that more than 11 ounces of cocaine had been found in her room, along with her daughter, Jennifer, then 4 years old.

Ms. Jacquez fled before the trial and was not arrested until 2001, when she tried to recover some of the money posted for her bail.

In an interview in a conference room here, Ms. Jacquez insisted in rapid and vehement Spanish that the drugs were not hers. So why didn't she fight the charges in court? She said she had received bad legal advice, which included being told that her witnesses could be arrested and that she should simply leave the courthouse and never come back.

Another complicating factor was the fate of her daughter, which might trouble the court. The police said she had endangered the child by leaving her alone in the home with drugs. She denies that was the case. But when Ms. Jacquez was arrested in 2001, Jennifer was left to fend for herself, at age 15. Jennifer said recently that she lived alone in her mother's apartment, though the electricity was turned off and she was ultimately evicted.

From prison, Ms. Jacquez eventually found help for her daughter through Hour Children, a program for the children of women in or released from prison, which has given Jennifer a job and a place to live. "Even though she's in there," Jennifer said, "she's been a good mom."Now that her daughter is doing better, Ms. Jacquez said she was less despondent; she has been wearing makeup and, this day, coral nail polish. And the changes in the drug laws have given her hope.

But she has served less than four years. And even if she does get out of prison, she may be forced to return to the Dominican Republic, which she left in 1979.The office of New York City's special narcotics prosecutor said that it had not yet seen a motion from Ms. Jacquez.

The office is reviewing 24 it has received from eligible inmates, said Magda Gandasegui, a spokewoman.

It has also received more than 30 motions by lower-level inmates who are not eligible for resentencing, she said, and other prosecutors report similar requests.

Though they may be disappointed about resentencing, these inmates do benefit from the new law, said Chauncey G. Parker, director of criminal justice for the state. It increases the amount of time that can be deducted from their prison sentences if they participate in education, drug-treatment and similar programs.

George W. Conaty Jr., who is representing Ms. Prather, the Rochester woman, said he had already been in touch with the Monroe County district attorney's office about a resentencing. A lawyer there, Thomas J. Brilbeck, said the office was working through about 50 resentencing requests, including Ms. Prather's.

Her case is more straightforward than Ms. Jacquez's. After a trial, she received 40 years in prison - later reduced to 20 by an appeals court - for helping her husband with his drug business. She denies that, but says she knew he was selling drugs; he pleaded guilty and was released from prison last May, after 10 years.

During the decade she has been in prison, Ms. Prather, 49, not only got a high school equivalency degree, she also recently earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. Though a reporter's visit came as a surprise to her, she spoke eloquently about her years in prison and her plans for her life when she returns to Rochester.

She is already packing her things and shipping them home to her five children, one of whom was only 2 years old when she left for prison. Now he is 13, and she is trying to get herself ready for a new life with him and his adult siblings (though not with the man she says got her into all of this).

And she has a list of dishes she wants to cook for her family when she gets home: lasagna, pork roast, chitterlings, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and potato salad will all be on the menu, because each of them is a relative's favorite, she said.

And for dessert, she will ask for her own favorite: peach cobbler, made by her mother.