Russell Simmons has emerged victorious in his battle against New York State’s harsh drug laws, which had mandated 15 years to life for some first-time low-level narcotics offenders, the toughest such minimum sentencing laws in the nation.
On Tuesday, state lawmakers voted to reduce penalties imposed by the so-called Rockefeller drug laws.
Reforming the laws has been an ongoing campaign, and in the past few years hip-hop artists and celebrities have joined the fray. Rap mogul Simmons got involved in 2003 when he gathered celebrity friends and rallied outside New York City Hall (see “Diddy, Jay-Z, Susan Sarandon Rally Against New York Drug Laws “ ).
“We are very happy and proud of all the support and efforts by hip-hop artists and other community activists that helped to bring about today’s agreement to reform the Rockefeller drug laws,” the Def Jam co-founder said in a statement released Tuesday evening.
The laws were enacted in 1973 when former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed statutes through the New York legislature to impose stiffer sentences on drug offenders.
Governor George Pataki has said he will sign the bipartisan legislative agreement, reached by Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, which would reduce sentences for first-time offenders to eight to 20 years, according to The New York Times.
In addition, more than 400 inmates currently serving prison sentences based upon the prior mandates will be allowed to apply for early release.
Another change that had also been discussed in prior legislative meetings, to allow judges to mandate drug-treatment programs to some offenders in lieu of prison time, was not part of the reform agreed upon on Tuesday.
Simmons nonetheless expressed satisfaction with the changes.
“Of course we wanted more,” he said, “but it’s as much as we could have realistically hoped for, and it finally broke the stalemate.”