Few news reports about New York’s Rockefeller-era drug laws were complete without a visit to the state’s maximum security prison for women in Bedford Hills, for an interview with an inmate longing to go home to her family, says the New York Times. The much-heralded changes to the drug laws that took effect last month will free at most 10 of those women in the near term. The new law does not allow them to challenge their convictions, but it does reduce mandatory sentences that critics said were longer than those meted out to some murderers. There is disappointment at the prison that so few of its 850 inmates will be going home.
A range of factors explain why so few women – at most 1 percent of the female drug-crime inmates -are likely to benefit from the change. They include the makeup of the prison population, the focus of the governor’s clemency program, and the complexity of the cases that landed some of the women in prison. Some reformers say that by publicizing the most egregious cases, they may have limited the assistance for the vast majority of women jailed on drug charges. Women account for fewer than 5 percent of those held in New York prisons. Of the prisoners sentenced on the most serious drug charges, only about 2 percent – 10 out of 446 – are women.