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The Twisted Logic of Drug Laws


Robert Chambers served 15 years in prison for the notorious murder of Jennifer Levin in 1986. He claimed that he accidentally strangled Levin during rough sex. Despite his horrific crime, Chambers was allowed to plead guilty to first degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years. Now, 21 years later, Chambers has been arrested for selling cocaine to undercover officers and faces top felony counts that can mean life in prison. As the case unfolds, it is apparent that Chambers, along with his girlfriend Shawn Kovell, who was also arrested, are both heavily addicted to drugs. They were described as “crack heads” by detectives who searched their disheveled upper-eastside apartment. Despite significant evidence against him, Chambers has pleaded not guilty to charges that can land him sentences of 15 to 30 years on each count under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Those who remember the details of his 1986 case will have no sympathy for Chambers. He ended the life of an 18-year-old girl and caused tremendous grief for her family. Chambers also has a history of drug addiction. While in prison, he served additional time for smuggling and selling drugs. A year after his release in 2003, he was again arrested while driving with a suspended license and officers found drug residue in his car. He pled guilty and served 100 days on a misdemeanor charge.

I am not advocating for Chambers despite the fact that he has a severe drug addiction. I am instead pointing out the that the most outrageous fact of this case is that Chambers faces more time now for a drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws than he did for taking Levin’s life. There is something very wrong with this equation. There are literally thousands of nonviolent Rockefeller offenders serving longer sentences than people who commit rape or murder. For example, Ashley O’Donoghue is serving a 7-to- 21 year sentence for a B felony. Many of them are first-time, nonviolent offenders who made mistakes in their lives and are sitting in prison despite two minor reforms made by the legislature in 2004 and 2005. Of the one thousand people eligible for relief, only about 350 individuals have been freed to date.

Governor Spitzer recently put together a panel to study the disparity of sentencing guidelines in New York State. One of the issues they were to study is the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In its recently released preliminary report, the commission failed to address the issue of Rockefeller Drug Law reform. Denise O’Donnell, state commissioner of criminal justice services and chairwoman of the Commission on Sentencing Reform, said the issue would be addressed next time. The final report is due in March of 2008.

The evidence is in. The issue does not need any more studies. It needs political will and action. The panel must consider the families of those incarcerated, those rotting away in prison, and the precious tax dollars being wasted on its archaic sentencing structure. There are hundreds of nonviolent Rockefeller offenders in prison serving longer sentences than those of convicted murderers for what is essentially a moral crime. 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. This problem needs to be fixed now-not “next time.”

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at:

Papa’s artwork can be viewed at:


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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