“Governor Paterson, it’s plain. If these laws stay, you are to blame!” yelled New York Civil Liberties Union Campaigns Coordinator Ari Rosmarin to a crowd of hundreds at the Drop the Rock rally in New York City on March 25.

Rosmarin was talking about the infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, which impose harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug offenses. For example, the minimum sentence for a first-time A-1 drug offense, the harshest offense, is 8 years without the possibility of parole.

Anthony Papa, author of “15 To Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom,” was arrested in 1984 for carrying 4 and a half ounces of cocaine and sentenced to a minimum of 15 years at Sing-Sing, New York States maximum security prison. He was granted clemency after 12 years when his art created a media frenzy around his incarceration.

The protest was held outside of Governor David Paterson’s Manhattan office, at 633 3rd Ave, where he was arrested in 2002 protesting the Rockefeller Drug Laws while Governor George Pataki was in office.

Named after Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who enacted the laws in 1973, mandatory-minimum sentences are imposed based on the type and amount of a drug the offender is caught with. Though the laws are supposed to target major offenders (drug kingpins), most of the individuals incarcerated are low-level, non-violent offenders, many of whom have no previous criminal record.

“Prisons are busting at the seams with non-violent, first time offenders,” yelled Papa to the cheering crowd.

Protestors chanted slogans such as “No more rock, drop the rock!” and “Governor Paterson, this is a test. Don’t become like all the rest!”

New York State has a drug problem, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), not because of drug use but drug laws. She asked protestors to call Governor Paterson and Senator Malcolm Smith, both of whom have pledged to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. She wanted protestors to remind Governor Paterson why he thought it was right to go to jail in 2002.

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons asked the crowd to make Governor Paterson and Senator Smith live up to their promises. “Remind them of the communities that elected them,” he said.

Many criticize the billions of dollars spent enforcing the laws since they were enacted, incarcerating 197,837 to date. The Rockefeller Drug Laws cost $600 million every year. Meanwhile, funding is cut from drug treatment, AIDS/HIV, education, and other programs.

Lieberman also called the laws racist, saying that they are the “Jim Crow Laws of the 21st century”. Though most drug users and dealers are white, 90% of those incarcerated under the laws are Black and Hispanic.

The laws do not allow judges to consider the circumstances surrounding each arrest, so the only way to reduce the sentence is to cooperate with the prosecution. Because District Attorneys will not consider a deal without information, which often can only be provided by those embroiled in the drug trade, low-level offenders who are not involved in trade operations are dealt the worst sentences.

Lieberman said, “The authority to mete out sentences should be given to judges, not district attorneys!”

Another problem is the recidivism rate of drug use. Because treatment is often not a consideration when sentencing drug offenders, individuals do not receive treatment and go back to drugs when they are released from prison, some even use drugs in prison.

Howard Josepher of Exponents, a minority-led organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by drugs, incarceration, and HIV/AIDS called on Governor Paterson to repeal the laws and reminded state lawmakers that treatment programs are ready to rehabilitate drug users.

In 2004, Governor Pataki enacted the Drug Law Reform Act (A. 08098), which moderately reduced some of the mandatory sentences, an expansion of “good time” for those incarcerated, significant reform parole practices, and a retroactive relief opportunity for those persons serving the harshest felony sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Critics of the laws say that this is a step forward, but a full repeal of the laws is necessary.

Representatives of NYCLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Correctional Association of New York, and others spoke at the rally.