There has been an onslaught of press attention following the arrest of "Preppy Killer" Robert Chambers due to, this time, selling cocaine. One fact that has been omitted from the coverage is that Chambers now faces more time for selling drugs under the Rockefeller Drug Laws than he did for the murder he committed in 1986.
Chambers served 15 years in prison for the notorious murder of Jennifer Levin. He claimed that he accidentally strangled Levin during rough sex. Despite his horrific crime, Chambers was allowed to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter instead of second-degree murder and was sentenced to serve between five and 15 years in prison. He wound up serving 15 years because of bad behavior, which included smuggling and selling drugs while in prison.
Now, 21 years later, Chambers has been arrested again, this time for selling cocaine to undercover officers. He faces top felony counts that can mean life in prison. As the case unfolds, it is evident that Chambers, along with his girlfriend, Shawn Kovell, who also was arrested, are both heavily addicted to drugs. They were described as "crackheads" by detectives who searched their disheveled Upper East Side apartment.
Despite significant evidence against him, Chambers has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of selling cocaine that can land him sentences of between 15 and 30 years for each of the highest counts under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So, if he is found guilty of the multiple charges, he could be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Those who remember the details of his 1986 case will have no sympathy for Chambers who has a history of drug addiction. A year after his release in 2003, he was arrested again while driving with a suspended license. Officers found drug residue in his car. He pled guilty to the charges and served 100 days on a misdemeanor charge. The most outrageous fact of all of Chambers's cases is that he faces more time for a drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws than he did for taking Levin's life.
Despite two minor reforms made by the legislature in 2004 and 2005 that slightly reduced the length of most drug sentences, there are 14,000 individuals in prison sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws. Many of them are nonviolent offenders and are serving longer sentences than people who commit rape or murder. There is something very wrong with this equation.
For example, Ashley O'Donoghue, a first time non-violent offender sold a small amount of drugs to two students at Hamilton College in upstate New York in 2003. The students got arrested, but worked out a deal with prosecutors that gave them probation. O'Donoghue, however, is serving a seven to 21-year sentence.
The reforms by the legislature, though, did not provide the needed relief for the vast majority of Rockefeller offenders. For example it reduced the highest sentences from 15 years to life to between eight and 20 years. The reforms also made some long-term drug offenders eligible for retroactive relief.
Since 1973 when the Rockefeller Laws were enacted, we have witnessed the creation of a drug-law gulag fed by a poorly conceived law that incarcerated many drug offenders from the inner city neighborhoods of New York. This helped to create smart upstate politicians who saw the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a tool to make the business of imprisonment a major industry in their districts — creating a disincentive in the legislature to reform these laws.
The recent reform did not provide funding to increase the availability of community based drug treatment. It did not increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. It also did not provide relief for the 4,000 B-drug felons: Out of the 1,000 individuals that became eligible for retroactive relief, only about 350 individuals have been freed to date because of procedural road blocks created by district attorneys.
Governor Spitzer recently put together a panel to study the disparity of sentencing guidelines in New York State. One of the issues was the Rockefeller Drug Laws. But in its recently released preliminary report, the commission failed even to address the issue of Rockefeller Drug Law reform. State commissioner of criminal justice services and chairwoman of the Commission on Sentencing Reform, Denise O'Donnell, said the issue would be addressed next time. The final report is due in March of 2008.
But the evidence is already in, and the issue does not need any more studies. It needs political will and action. The Spitzer panel must consider the families of those incarcerated, and the precious tax dollars being wasted on the court's archaic sentencing structure. Hundreds of nonviolent Rockefeller offenders in prison are serving longer sentences than those of convicted murderers.
Something is fundamentally wrong with a system that advocates serving more time for a nonviolent drug offense then for a hideous crime committed by a sociopath like Robert Chambers. On November 13, individuals affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws will come together to speak at a public hearing conducted by the sentencing commission at the New York City Bar Association. Their message to the commission will be this: the problem needs to be fixed now — not "next time."
Mr. Papa, the author of "15 to Life," is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.