When Justice Isn’t Blind

New York’s drug laws ensure that the privileged and connected receive leniency for the same offenses that send thousands of blacks and Latinos to prison.

Julia Diaco, the rich and connected so-called “Pot Princess” was sentenced on March 22 in Manhattan Supreme Court to five years’ probation for drug dealing.

Diaco was 18 years old when she was arrested for multiple sales of drugs to undercover narcotics officers from her dorm room at New York University. Despite having a “strong” case against her and facing up to 25 years in prison if convicted, she received probation upon completion of a drug rehab and education program.

This follows the high-profile case of Caroline Quartararo, a former spokeswoman on Rockefeller drug law reform for Gov. George Pataki, who received a similar minor sentence after being arrested with crack cocaine. Quartararo was given treatment and a $250 fine. She was arrested on December 20 for possessing three rocks of crack cocaine. She pleaded guilty to seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.

Cheri O’Donoghue, whose son Ashley is currently serving a sentence of seven to 21 years for a first-time nonviolent drug offense, said the cases of Julia Diaco and Caroline Quartararo prove that “if you are rich and privileged, you will likely receive compassion from the courts”.

“While I support the notion of compassion and access to treatment for people who use and abuse drugs,” said O’Donoghue, “the reality is that people of color who get caught up in the criminal justice system generally receive neither.”

While drug use rates are similar between blacks and whites, approximately 92 per cent of the people in prison on drug charges in New York are black and Latino. O’Donoghue’s 23-year-old son, who is black, sold cocaine to two white students, who in turn sought to resell the drugs on their Hamilton College campus.

The students were caught and received probation. Ashley O’Donoghue was left to rot in prison, another casualty of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He is one of more than 4,000 people sitting in New York state prisons convicted of B-level Rockefeller drug law felonies.

The modest reforms to the state’s drug laws in 2004 and 2005 have no impact on these B-level offenders. Gabriel Sayegh, director of the State Organizing and Policy Project of the Drug Policy Alliance says New Yorkers want to see meaningful Rockefeller Drug Law reform.

“Even after the reforms last year, the vast majority of people incarcerated under these failed laws are still languishing behind bars,” he said. “Our elected officials in Albany need to take action to enact real reform of these laws, so that young men like Ashley O’Donoghue can receive the same compassion as those who are rich, well-connected or are employed by the governor.”

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom (Feral House). He is currently a consultant for Drug Policy Alliance in New York City and writes for the Socialist Worker.





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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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