Noelle Bush gets rehab, the poor and black get hard time

Fed up with draconian drug penalties, a coalition led by angry mothers is threatening to overturn some of the country's harshest laws.

Published August 5, 2002 8:33PM (EDT)

White-haired, patrician, well-dressed, John Dunne is a former Republican state senator who sponsored New York's draconian drug laws almost 30 years ago. So it's a bit of a shock to see him starring in a television commercial with Mary Mortimore, an ailing African-American grandmother from upstate New York whose son is in jail for selling cocaine. But these days, the two are on the same mission: to convince New York to reform its so-called Rockefeller drug laws, named after the governor who presided over their passage in 1973, laws that have destroyed the family of one and weighed on the conscience of the other.

"I haven't seen my son in 10 years," Mortimore tells the camera. She's a lovely, fine-boned woman with desolate eyes and a choked voice. She recently had a stroke. "In 1992 he was convicted of a low-level drug offense and sent to prison. 15 to 30 years on a low-level drug offense. That's more time than they give convicted murderers and sex offenders."

Then Dunne appears. "In 1973, I sponsored the Rockefeller drug laws, which have been a well-documented failure," he says solemnly. Dunne goes on to urge Gov. George Pataki to ease the laws and redirect resources from prison to rehabilitation.

No one is sure exactly what Pataki will do, but it's clear he's having to listen to Dunne and Mortimer. They're part of a growing grass-roots movement to reform New York's drug laws, which are among the nation's harshest. In New York state, first-time, nonviolent drug offenders routinely receive higher sentences than rapists and murderers. Robert Chambers, the so-called preppie murderer, was given five to 15 years for killing Jennifer Levin in 1988. Joel Steinberg, who beat his 6-year-old daughter Lisa to death in 1987, was sentenced to eight to 25 years. Yet last year Darryl Best, a 46-year-old father of four with no criminal history, was locked up in maximum security for 15 years to life after he signed for a Fed-Ex package delivered to his uncle's house that turned out to contain cocaine.

That's not because the judge was a monster. At Best's sentencing hearing, Judge Michael Gross said the punishment was "clearly out of line for the offense that Mr. Best committed."

But he had no choice. Under the Rockefeller drug laws, passed at the height of public panic over drugs and street crime, anyone convicted of selling 2 ounces or possessing 4 ounces of cocaine or heroin, an A-1 felony, has to serve at least 15 years in prison before being eligible for parole. People convicted of possessing half an ounce of narcotics, or of any sale at all -- B felonies -- can get up to 25 years in prison.

There are roughly 21,000 people now serving drug sentences in New York state prisons, constituting about a third of the state's inmate population. Though studies show that most drug users and drug sellers are white, 94 percent of New York's drug inmates are black and Latino.

"Noelle Bush forges a prescription and goes to rehab," says Teresa Aviles, a 54-year-old Bronx police clerk whose son, Isidro, died of an untreated, undiagnosed illness after serving eight years of a 27-year federal prison term. "If that was my daughter, she would have gotten a mandatory five-year sentence."

Federal mandatory minimums are separate from the Rockefeller laws, but Aviles has joined the crusade against New York's statutes out of a need to give some meaning to her eldest's death. "Everybody knows there's a double standard of justice," she says. "It's not black-and-white, it's dollars and cents."

Now, for the first time in three decades, almost everyone involved in New York politics -- except, crucially, the powerful District Attorneys Association and a few upstate senators -- seems to be coming around to Aviles' view. Even Pataki calls 15-to-life sentences "egregious." He's in negotiations with the Democrat-controlled State Assembly, which supports broader reform than Pataki does, and the two sides claim to be moving closer to an agreement. "It is something everybody thinks ought to be done," says Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Chauncey Parker, Pataki's director of criminal justice, says that drug-law reform is the governor's "No. 1 priority for criminal justice."

And, of course, there's Dunne, who is now working for repeal side by side with the relatives of people his legislation has put away.

Those relatives are getting more numerous, more powerful and more savvy. Perhaps the most important grass-roots reform group is the Mothers of the Disappeared, a coalition of drug inmates' family members. The core of the group is about 25 women, including Wanda Best, Darryl Best's wife of 22 years; Regina Stevens, whose wheelchair-bound son was granted clemency partly through the Mothers' lobbying; and Elaine Bartlett, a former inmate who was sentenced under the Rockefeller laws and whose husband, Nathan Brooks, is 19 years into a 25-to-life sentence. Bartlett and Brooks have never spent a night together as man and wife; they had their judge marry them right before they were sentenced so they could stay connected.

Working with them are Anthony Papa, an intense 46-year-old paralegal who earned three degrees and became a noted painter while serving a sentence of 15 years to life for making a drug delivery, and Randy Credico, an abrasive 47-year-old former stand-up comic whose manic energy has given the movement much of its momentum.

Thanks largely to the Mothers of the Disappeared group, New York is closer to reform than it's ever been, but advocates for change aren't celebrating yet. There's some optimism in the air, but the sad possibility remains that despite the near-unanimous sentiment that it's futile to keep thousands of nonviolent people imprisoned, they might remain hostage to politics.

Activists say that if change doesn't come before November, it might not come at all. Right now, Pataki is searching for black and Latino support in the upcoming election, and Rockefeller reform is a hot-button issue in those communities. After the fall, the Mothers group fears, it will be easy for politicians to forget all about their families.

John Dunne is not given to melodrama. But his involvement with the anti-Rockefeller movement is clearly a mission of redemption. "I've got certainly a sense of guilt here. I'm trying to correct it," he says.

Dunne became aware of the disastrous effects of mandatory minimums while working for the first President George Bush. As assistant attorney general for civil rights, he was responsible for investigating rights violations in federal prisons. He saw those prisons filling up with nonviolent offenders because of the same sort of mandatory sentencing rules he'd pushed through in New York. That was never his intention, he says; he'd meant the Rockefeller laws to be used against kingpins.

On returning to Albany, he started working to undo his own legislation, organizing the Campaign for Effective Criminal Justice, a group of judges, politicians, lawyers, business leaders and clergy. The campaign's mission statement says New York's drug laws "deprive children of their parents, waste enormous human and financial resources, and fail to address effectively the addiction that underlies most drug offenses."

Dunne's presence lends credibility to the movement to undo Rockefeller. But the mothers, wives and sisters of inmates are its heart and soul. Beginning on Mother's Day 1998, small groups started gathering for weekly vigils in front of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, carrying pictures of the men they'd lost. They took the name Mothers of the Disappeared from the Argentinian organization that protested state terror in the 1970s.

Slowly, their stories made it into the local media, and politicians took notice. Regina Stevens, whose son Terrence Stevens was serving 15 years to life for cocaine possession and is almost wholly paralyzed by muscular dystrophy, went to the rallies faithfully. In December 2000, after the New York Times ran a story about Terrence, Pataki pardoned him.

Lately, the Mothers of the Disappeared have been taking meetings with everyone who matters in New York -- Gov. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Silver, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. "The thing I most want to see happen is to see you reunited with your families," Pataki told them at an Albany meeting on June 12.

Perhaps, but the situation is still tentative. After all, Pataki said he wanted to reform the drug laws in his State of the State address in January 2001, yet since then nothing has changed. The last legislative session ended without an agreement between the Assembly and the governor. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says that while the two sides have moved closer together, there's a chance they'll fail to reach a compromise.

Given how high the stakes are, the mothers have taken an amazing gamble. At the Albany meeting in June, Pataki told them that if they supported his bill, he could have their loved ones out "in a matter of days." Pataki's carefully crafted bill would have shortened mandatory minimums for A-1 felons. Their sentences are so unjust they -- and their relatives -- have become the poster children for the reform movement. Darryl Best, for example, is said to be a devoted father who never missed his daughters' parent-teacher conferences or basketball games, but his youngest, now 13, will be 28 before he has a chance of getting out. But of all the people doing time in New York on drug charges, only about 590 of them are A-1s, so Pataki's bill wouldn't have remedied the plight of thousands of other prisoners.

Almost all of the women at the meeting were relatives of A-1 felons. Parker told them they'd have their relatives back by the Fourth of July if only they'd pressure the Assembly to pass it.

They said no.

Instead, the group told Pataki, they wanted to see thousands of prisoners freed, to get rid of mandatory minimums, to streamline the process for resentencing, and to expand drug-treatment options. They didn't want to divide what's become the most vital civil rights movement in decades.

At a July 25 press conference in Albany, the mothers joined with Dunne in announcing their position on the governor's bill and unveiling the new TV commercial. Dunne says he's awed by "the courage of these women" in turning the deal down. Turning to Wanda Best and Elaine Bartlett, he said, "It gives me great pride to be identified with you."

The Mothers of the Disappeared began with one middle-aged white man recovering from a coke binge in a Florida hotel room. Randy Credico had been working on an HBO special with a well-known comic, and when they finished, they went on a bender. He checked himself into a room near Tampa to relax and detox for a few weeks. "I watched a lot of C-Span and read a lot of books."

It was on C-Span that he saw Anthony Papa debating someone from the American Correctional Association. Papa had become an anti-Rockefeller activist after getting out of prison, and Credico knew right away he wanted to work with him. Back in New York, he tracked Papa down and took him out for drinks, and they dreamed up Mothers of the Disappeared.

"Unfortunately there's not enough people who give a shit about blacks in prison," says Credico, who is now the project director at the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. "No one's ready to lose any sleep over it. But mothers -- everyone's got a mother. You see these old, tired women whose kids have been in prison for a long period of time, it's really difficult not to care."

Credico isn't a large man, but he takes up a lot of space. He has dark hair and a fondness for martinis, and he manages to keep up a string of invective against racism in the justice system even when his mouth is plugged with a cigar. An old-school leftist, he claims he was blackballed from TV after he referred to Reagan-era U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick as "Eva Braun" while doing stand-up on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

He says it was difficult but necessary to reject the governor's offer. "[Pataki] has got to go much further," he says. "It was a very cynical undertaking."

They'd worked too hard, he says, to give up without pushing for sweeping change. "To get a really shitty deal after all this violence against poor people by the law enforcement establishment, to get a small tinkering, to replace the firing squad with lethal injection, is that reform?" he asks.

Some people thought it was enough. Doreen LaMarca, whose brother Michael has been locked up for 17 years, says, "Sometimes you hold out too long, you get nothing. I can't understand why these people aren't jumping at this. It baffles me. I look at them and think, 'Bring your loved one home.' I think it's great that they want to help everybody. Randy wants to help the world. I'll just take that little piece that's going to bring my brother home."

That the rest of the group didn't feel the same is testament not just to their own resolve, but to their faith in Credico. Driving up to Albany for the July press conference, Wanda Best talks with him about the risks of turning Pataki down. She admits she's scared.

"I'm just afraid someone will say 'F' the mothers," she tells Credico, who is driving too fast and alternating between cigars and cigarettes. Darryl Best is nine months into his sentence, and under the governor's bill, he wouldn't be eligible for release for at least five years. But that's a lot better than 15, and the Bests have already lost one gamble, turning down a plea bargain that could have had Darryl out in a year.

Credico will hear none of it. "Do you want to get your husband out?" he booms.

Pointing to Elaine Bartlett, he says, "Do you want her husband to get out? Do you want to use the power that you have?"

Best, a small, demure 51-year-old, smiles sweetly and says, "I'll follow you to the death, Randy."

The women believe in Credico because his gift for combining P.R. with street action is responsible for propelling the movement as far as it's gone. As Papa says, a few years ago it would have been a "political death" for a candidate to advocate freeing felons from prison in an election year. "We put a human face on the issue and showed all these people rotting away because of these draconian laws," he says. "We changed public opinion so politicians were not afraid anymore to get involved."

"Six years ago, I was sitting in a 6-by-9 cage in Sing Sing," Papa says. "All the sudden here I am in front of the governor asking him to please change these laws."

Like Credico, Papa knows the power of a media-friendly story to influence politicians.

Sixteen years ago, he ran a radio installation shop in the Bronx. He had a wife and a daughter and was short of cash, and a bowling partner offered him $500 to deliver an envelope of cocaine.

The bowling partner was a police informant. "He had three sales indictments, and the police told him the more people you get, the less time you'll get." He got Papa, who got 15 years to life.

In Sing Sing, Papa earned a paralegal degree from Bronx Community College, a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from Mercy College and a master's degree from the New York Theological Seminary. What really saved him, though, was his painting. His despairing portraits of captivity -- some two-dimension and allegorical, like Diego Rivera, others roiling and impressionistic, like Francis Bacon -- caught the attention of the artist Mike Kelley, who included Papa's agonizingly bleak self-portrait "15 Years to Life" in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

Capitalizing on the publicity, Papa wrote his own press releases and sent them to local reporters. After five or six months, a piece about Papa appeared in a Westchester County paper. More followed, and as his story spread, so did calls for his release. In 1997, Pataki granted him clemency. "I painted my way out of prison," he says.

As soon as he was released, he began working to repeal the laws that put him away. He's become such a constant political presence that he and Credico now joke that Pataki probably wishes he could lock him back up.

As the son of an ex-convict, it was easy for Credico to relate to Papa. His father did eight years for safecracking during the Depression, before Credico was born, and imbued him with a deep sense of the horror of prison. "I got his mindset from it," he says. "I know how fucked up Tony [Papa] is from those 12 years of being hoisted into a dangerous environment away from his family."

That knowledge was the key to creating Mothers of the Disappeared. It helped him sweet-talk the women he met waiting at the bus stop for transport to the upstate prisons that house drug offenders. Slowly, he convinced them to join him in taking to the streets. His outrage at what they've been through is palpable in the clench of his jaw and the exasperation in his voice.

Credico's commitment is all-consuming. His girlfriend recently dumped him because of his single-minded obsession with changing the Rockefeller laws. Aviles calls him an "unsung hero. Sometimes he's hard to take, but if anything positive ever does happen, it will because of Randy."

The love is clearly mutual; while Credico barks and screams at most people, he's gruffly deferential to the Mothers.

"Randy saved my life," says Wanda Best from the backseat of Credico's Albany-bound rental car. When Credico tries to shush her, she tells him, "Randy, the truth will set you free."

"It's not going to set me free of this hangover," he shoots back, a cigar butt between his lips.

Maniacally switching between radio stations, he keeps up a soliloquy about the iniquities of the governor's bill and the need for across-the-board retroactive sentencing reductions. "Unless that's in, we're not supporting either bill," he says. "We ain't anyone's patsies."

While Pataki's bill would lower minimum sentences, it would be up to inmates to apply for resentencing, and judges could deny it. It applies to far fewer inmates than the Assembly bill does, and gives judges less authority to refer new defendants into treatment.

At the June meeting, Pataki tried to convince the Mothers to accept partial change now and more reform later, telling them to prod the Assembly to "pass the A-1 law and have hundreds of people out in a matter of days." But they were persuaded otherwise by Silver, who insists, "If [Pataki] was successful in just doing the limited A-1 bill, he would have the sound bite he was looking for to say he reformed the Rockefeller law, and there would never be further reform."

Both sides are playing politics with the Mothers. Pataki told them, "I really wonder if the Assembly wants reform. They'd rather have this as an issue where you're out there picketing instead of being home with your families."

Besides, says Pataki, "We are running out of the ability to go much further." After all, the New York District Attorneys Association and some conservative state senators oppose all but the most minimum sentencing reform. Craig Miller, spokesman for state Sen. Dale Volker, accuses anti-Rockefeller activists of "advocating a true jail break from New York state prisons."

"Any time you put a drug dealer back on the streets of New York state, the possibly of that person committing another crime is there," he says.

The district attorneys, meanwhile, admit they like the Rockefeller laws because the threat of long sentences helps them extract plea bargains and recruit informants. "It would be disingenuous to say otherwise," says James Vargason, president of the District Attorneys Association. But there's also a sharp ideological divide -- D.A.s simply don't see drug dealers and drug couriers, petty or not, as victims.

"Drug dealing is a violent business, and anybody who has been arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug dealing is there of their own volition," Vargason says. "I'm feeling pretty good as a prosecutor when I remove somebody from the streets who is threat to you or your loved ones. Drug dealing poses that threat."

That's why Vargason's group, which already believes the governor's bill goes too far, is going to fight further concessions.

They're helped by the fact that Credico, in his sympathy for the imprisoned, occasionally overlooks the fact that some of the people he champions are not exactly innocents. As Chauncey Parker points out, the son Mary Mortimore talks about in the commercial might be imprisoned for a low-level offense, but he's been arrested over 30 times -- once with four loaded guns -- and convicted four times for drugs and assault.

Credico appears irritated when Parker brings this up, saying, "He was an addict most of his life. These were low-level things. It's not unusual for black people to get arrested 40 or 50 times. The cops routinely lie and routinely target people."

Papa laughs at Credico's attempt at damage control, saying that Credico was stunned and furious when Parker confronted him with Hilts' rap sheet. "You should have seen the look on his face," Papa says.

But while they laugh at the debacle, Papa believes the revelation was part of a Republican campaign to block reform. The politics, he says, are getting uglier by the day. "I blame all the politicians. The two sides hate each other," he says. "It's amazing to come so close and see them just spinning their wheels while another year goes by."

In another year, it may be too late. Deborah Small, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit drug-law reform group funded by George Soros, fears that if reform doesn't come before November, it won't come at all. Pataki's pledge to reform the drug laws has become a major campaign issue, especially in the minority neighborhoods that most drug inmates come from. The issue is especially critical in the Latino community, where the Drug Policy Alliance has been running Spanish language ads. Right now, Pataki has an interest in appealing to that growing constituency; he seems to have written off blacks.

After the election, the issue, activists fear, will be moot, and Pataki will be more concerned with wooing the law-and-order types in the upper Republican echelons who might advance his career.

"George [Pataki] is a decent guy and I think he wants to see something happen, but some of the advisors around him are stonewalling," Dunne says. "The D.A.s put the fear of God into legislators that if they support reform they'll be viewed as soft on drugs and soft on crime, and nobody wants to get hit with that tag line."

He's still optimistic about the "good faith negotiating" going on right now, but others are bracing for disappointment.

"It's like 'Ishtar.' You spend three years making it and it comes out to be a shitty movie," says Credico. "It's the same feeling here." Aviles adds that while people keeping saying that change is nearly here, "That's what they've been saying since I met Randy in 1998. Seeing is believing."

"My son got a death sentence and I got life in prison," she continues. "I pray that in my lifetime change comes, but I won't be surprised if it doesn't."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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