Off at the 137th Street stop at City College, I found my destination. Home to the applauded organization of In Arms Reach, I spoke with the founder of the Harlem-based incorporation, Terrence Stevens. We sat in a conference office at City College University of New York, where his organization resides, and he began to tell me his story.
“Despite my lack of participation in the alleged offense, the judge’s hands were tied. Even though he didn’t feel like I deserved a 15 to Life sentence… he didn’t have a choice.” Stevens expanded on how he went from being convicted a life-sentenced term for a first time, nonviolent, low-level drug offense, to gaining his freedom and transforming his life as an activist. These words were spoken by Stevens, but could easily have been said by any other small-drug offender over the span of the past 35 years, due to the unjust rules of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Enacted in 1973 under the influence of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were said to have been created to target major “kingpins” of the drug world. In reality, due to the extremity of the mandatory minimum prison terms, many of which have had no prior criminal record and whose possession or sale of drugs were moderately small in quantity.
Terrence Stevens’ work in advocating for the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, along with countless others from Russell Simmons to Governor David Paterson, most recently were paid off on October 7, 2009. The new law has been praised for its new clause which allows the discretion of the judge to come into play, from the amount of jail time versus rehabilitation, and its increased penalty for drug kingpins, though it has been criticized for its failure to punish second-and-third time drug offenders, such as in the past.
“I was travelling with someone who possessed about 5 oz of cocaine [slightly less than a cup in measure] inside their luggage bag,” recalled Stevens. “I went to trial and wind up being convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.” Stevens had an additional issue regarding his case, which was his handicap defense. “One of the jurors had allegedly claimed to have seen me walking or something like that,” said Stevens. Handicapped from the neck down since birth due to Muscular Dystrophy, nothing could have handicapped him more than the thought of spending life in jail.
“The prosecutor had more power than the judge at the time,” said Stevens. The judge was handcuffed. He could not sentence a person in accordance with the role that the judge felt they played in the alleged offense. He had no jurisdiction of discretion. He was basically forced to give out these Dracodian fifteen-year-to-life sentences. This was a mandated statue, so it was basically no ways to get around it.”
The Rockefeller Drug Laws went into effect in 1973. Stevens was imprisoned in 1991. By 1994, the prison population of drug offenders had surged from 11% to 35%, according to the State’s Corrections Department. Even as reforms were attempted in 1979, 1998, and 2004, they did not revise the minimum term sentence (15 years to life- which is equivalent to that of a second-degree murder), nor did they do much to lower the prison population. In fact, statistics prove that the last reform only increased the number of nonviolent drug offenders imprisoned; rising from 5,657 in 2004 to 6,039 in 2006.
Terrence Stevens was not released until 9-and-half years later, on Dec. 25, 2000. He was granted a clemency by Governor Pataki, but it did not come easily. After he began serving time for his incarceration, he sent his mother to protest alongside the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. At this protest, she met a judge by the name of Jerome W. Marks. She told him of her son’s story and his condition, which sparked his interest and concern. After meeting with Stevens several times, the judge filed the clemency application that lead to his freedom.
“When I was first released, we were doing a lot of public speaking regarding the impact that the Rockefeller Drug Laws had on poor communities of color. It was basically seven communities in New York City that was being targeted for these low-level, non-violent offenses… With Pataki in office, it was such an uphill battle to get him to even budge, to try to change these laws or repeal these laws.”
Stevens decided then to lobby for the organization, In Arms Reach. “I started focusing on the children that had been impacted by parental incarceration. It was very difficult explaining to these children why their parents weren’t active in their lives. Some of them were suffering from emotional withdrawal, stigma, anxiety… being disruptive in the classroom. A lot of these factors were contributing to the fact that they had a missing parent- a broken down family structure.”
In Arms Reach is an important entity to society because it focuses on changing a cyclical history in these kids’ lives (ages 7 to 18), and provides alternative options to break the cycle they could easily have fallen into otherwise. With the Rockefeller Drug Laws reformed, there can be thousands of cases turned over. Families may be given a second chance. Terrence Stevens can easily say he’s helped to the best of his ability, to the betterment of the future of not only these kids, but some of their parents as well.