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Jeffrion Aubry: A Champion for Justice in New York

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Jeffrion Aubry: A Champion for Justice in New York

After more than 30 years as a state legislator, the assemblyman is retiring – and leaving a remarkable legacy.

by gabriel sayegh

Note: A shorter version of this essay was published in the Queens Daily Eagle on July 2, 2024. 

When a young Black man in Queens named Jeffrion Aubry was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1992, the incarcerated population was exploding. More prisons were being built in New York, all upstate. Then, as now, the people sent there were disproportionately Black and Latino – and most were coming from New York City neighborhoods like the ones Assembly Member Aubry, a Democrat, represented in Elmhurst/Corona. Driving this astronomical growth was the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme the state had passed two decades earlier.

In 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” New York held about 12,500 people in state prisons.[1] Governor Nelson Rockefeller was eyeing yet another run at the White House and turned toward severe criminalization of drug use to burnish his “tough on crime” persona. In 1973, he pushed through a legislative package that came to bear his name: the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This landmark legislation mandated long prison terms for possession of even small amounts of controlled substances. It was the drug war as state policy. In the years that followed, New York passed more mandatory imprisonment laws and other states soon did the same.

By the time President Ronald Reagan expanded the drug war in the early 1980s, New York’s prison population had more than doubled – and was still growing.[2] Under Governor Mario Cuomo, the state embarked on a massive prison construction program, which some promoted as economic stimulus for the rural communities devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. This made for an ugly equation: Black and Latino people – from what visionary organizer Eddie Ellis (and the Green Haven Think Tank) called “racially segregated and underserved” city neighborhoods – were heavily policed and swept into the legal system, hit with long sentences, and sent to upstate prisons staffed mostly by white people.[3] More than 90 percent of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws were Black and Latino, even though rates of drug use nationwide are similar among Black, white, and Latino people.[4]

By 1992, when Jeffrion Aubry entered the legislature, he’d already spent more than two decades serving his community, including as a teacher, a substance use counselor, and the executive director of Elmcor Youth and Adult Activity (“the oldest Black-led human services nonprofit in Queens”).[5] He wanted everyone to have meaningful opportunities in life. He wanted people to learn, grow, and have a fair shot to get ahead. He’d been active in protest movements before running for office and hadn’t planned on going into politics, but as he recently told a reporter, “You . . . have to have people inside who can translate that noise into progressive policies.”[6] Many elected officials are accountable first to their party; Aubry typically answered first to the movements working for a better world.

He had seen firsthand how the drug war was a disaster and he knew change was necessary. In 1997, contrary to the bipartisan ethos of the time, he introduced legislation to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws – and became champion of the cause.

The country was still in the grip of a drug war fever. In New York City, communities of color were subjected to the cruelty of the Giuliani era. Rikers and other city jails were bursting at the seams, with nearly 20,000 people behind bars.[7] Over 70,000 people were in state prisons, and more than 30 percent of them were incarcerated under the drug laws.[8] Given the politics of the time nationally and in New York, as well as the dynamics in the legislature, real criminal justice and drug policy reform seemed unfeasible.[9]

Unfeasible, but not impossible. In the late ’90s, a movement against the prison industrial complex prison reform was growing nationwide. Across New York, formerly incarcerated folks, impacted families, college students, and activists were coalescing around a demand to repeal the draconian drug laws. The movement, which students dubbed Drop the Rock, was gaining momentum, and the demands were percolating into state politics.

As the movement grew stronger, its reach also grew – dramatically. In June 2003, advocacy and community groups organized with celebrities to hold a massive rally in Manhattan, calling on Albany to “Drop the Rock.” Tens of thousands of people came to hear Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Mariah Carey, and other stars call for the repeal of the brutal drug laws.[10]

Hopes rose that repeal was imminent. Soon after the rally, a music industry mogul met with the governor and the state’s two top legislative bosses to negotiate a deal – but they literally shut Assemblyman Aubry out of the room.[11] When those negotiations fell apart, advocates’ hopes crashed against the seemingly intractable drug war and the state’s shady backroom politics. Many groups and movement leaders grew dispirited, and some withdrew from the fight. But not Jeffrion Aubry. He concentrated on finding a path to victory.

The 2004 elections in New York shook up the political establishment when voters, educated and mobilized by the movement, demanded change. One of the biggest victories was in the primary for Albany County district attorney, when a reform-minded upstart beat the incumbent, a longtime cheerleader for the drug war.[12] The elections set the stage for passage of two limited reforms in late 2004 and mid-2005, which Assembly Member Aubry helped usher through: reducing the harshest of the drug laws’ penalties and making about 1,000 people eligible for possible resentencing and release.[13] Finally, there were fractures in the Rock.

Some advocates thought an incremental approach would deflate the movement for repeal. Some political leaders certainly hoped that would happen. But Jeffrion Aubry believed, as some advocacy groups did, that reform could progress as long as the movement stayed focused.

As one of the organizers working closely with him then, I learned how critical it is to have a legislative champion who sticks with the fight and answers to the movement.

Groups on the ground kept going strong, working with Assembly Member Aubry and others to prioritize reform at the capitol. In 2008, the Democrats won a majority in the State Senate and essentially controlled government in Albany. Many believed that repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws was within reach. But support for the drug war had long been bipartisan, and some Democrats doubled down on their opposition to reform. A fierce battle ensued, with the assemblyman leading the legislative charge while the movement rallied in streets across the state and in the halls of the capitol.

Finally, in April of 2009, we won a major victory: The legislature passed real reforms that ended mandatory prison terms for nearly all drug offenses; expanded alternatives to incarceration; increased investment in substance use treatment; and more.[14] And though on-the-ground organizing was indispensable, we wouldn’t have won without Jeffrion Aubry’s tenacity, commitment, and principled leadership. Governor David Paterson signed the reforms at a ceremonial event at Elmcor – the Queens nonprofit the assemblyman had long led.[15]

New York had helped launch the war on drugs. Now the state was a leader in reform. And again, many other states followed.

Since 2009, the movement has won an array of reforms throughout the criminal legal system: ending the practice of treating most juveniles as adults;[16] providing more resources for public defense;[17] expanding alternatives to incarceration and developing a stronger network of reentry programs to support people after incarceration;[18] bolstering due process protections;[19] enacting bail reform to promote fairness and limit detention based on someone’s ability to pay;[20] restricting the use of solitary confinement in state prisons;[21] ending the practice of automatic incarceration for noncriminal technical violations of parole;[22] and much more.

As a result, fewer New Yorkers are being incarcerated and more people are getting the support and services they need. The state’s daily average jail population is down by more than 50 percent since 1997.[23] Due to many factors including drug law reform, the prison population is down by more than 50 percent since its peak in 1999.[24] Two dozen prisons have been shuttered, with more slated for closure this year.[25] The number of people on parole has been cut by more than half.[26] Crime rates trended downward during most of this period. There’s more to be done, of course – and fortunately, an energized grassroots movement continues organizing statewide, building on these victories. 

Jeffrion Aubry sponsored many of these bills that were enacted into law, partnering with community and advocacy groups to advance each proposal. He wasn’t the author of every reform in the past 15 years, but his work helped us get here; campaigns for justice across the state have benefited from his strategic guidance and stalwart support for years. And he has mentored other lawmakers, many of whom are still working with grassroots groups and advocacy organizations to carry forth the work for justice in Albany.[27] He has served New Yorkers admirably, including as an assembly member, as longtime Chair of the Assembly Committee on Correction and as speaker pro tempore.

And he has never stopped pushing. Last year, the legislature passed his bill to create new pathways for those wrongfully convicted in New York to formally clear their names, but Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed it.[28] On the last day of the legislative session this year, the State Senate and Assembly passed Aubry’s bill to remove a lifetime ban on jury service for New Yorkers convicted of felonies, a bill that had languished for years.[29]

Assembly Member Aubry’s retirement marks the end of an era in our state. He emerged from and remained rooted in the community and stayed in the fight for justice for the long haul, even against daunting odds and even when his party wasn’t with him. New York is better – and the national movement to end mass incarceration is stronger – because of his work. He deserves all the accolades he received from his colleagues on the last day of session. He has also earned the deep gratitude and lasting respect of an entire movement, one he played an important role in.

But Jeffrion Aubry isn’t much for fanfare, especially for himself, and he’d take a victory for justice – even a small one – over a plaque or flowers any day. The best way to express our gratitude for his decades of leadership is to redouble our efforts to make New York a fairer, more just, more equitable, safer, and kinder place for all who live here.

gabriel sayegh is the cofounder of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, a grassroots group with members in Queens and throughout New York city and state.

 

[1] Correctional Association of New York. Prison Population Explosion in New York State – A Study of Its Causes and Consequences with Recommendations for Change. 1982. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/prison-population-explosion-new-york-state-study-its-causes-and.

[2] President Reagan announced his drug war in October 1982. In 1983, 28,500 people were in New York State prisons. See Andrew Glass. “Reagan declares ‘War on Drugs,’ October 14, 1982.” October 14, 2010. https://www.politico.com/story/2010/10/reagan-declares-war-on-drugs-october-14-1982-043552; and Correctional Association of New York. “The History of the Correctional Association of New York: IX: The Correctional Association Today.” https://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/cany/html/cany09a.html.

[3] Eddie Ellis. The Seven Neighborhood Study Revisited. Center for Nu Leadership. 2013. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58eb0522e6f2e1dfce591dee/t/596e1246d482e9c1c6b86699/1500385865855/seven-neighborhood+revisited+rpt.pdf#page=3.

[4] American Civil Liberties Union. The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective. 2009. 11, 41, citing U.S. Census Bureau and New York State Department of Correctional Services data. https://www.nyclu.org/uploads/2017/01/nyclu_pub_rockefeller.pdf; and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Annual National Report, Figure 15 and Table B.7B. November 2023. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2022-nsduh-annual-national-report.

[5] Rebecca C. Lewis. “Jeffrion Aubry, Voice of the Assembly, Is Leaving It After 30 Years.” City & State New York. March 11, 2024; https://www.cityandstateny.com/personality/2024/03/jeffrion-aubry-voice-assembly-leaving-it-after-30-years/394807/.

[6] Lewis, “Jeffrion Aubry, Voice of the Assembly.”

[7] “Department of Correction Gets New Commissioner.” The New York Times. December 24, 1997.
https://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/24/nyregion/metro-news-briefs-new-york-department-of-correction-gets-new-commissioner.html?searchResultPosition=22.

[8] Peter A. Mancuso. “Resentencing After the Fall of Rockefeller: The Failure of the Drug Law Reform Acts of 2004 and 2005 to Remedy the Injustices of New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Compromise of 2009.” Albany Law Review 73. 2010, 1536, citing Edward J. Maggio, “New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, Then and Now.” New York State Bar Association Journal. September 2006. 30, 32. https://www.albanylawreview.org/article/69531-resentencing-after-the-fall-of-rockefeller-the-failure-of-the-drug-law-reform-acts-of-2004-and-2005-to-remedy-the-injustices-of-new-york-s-rockefelle.

[9] Lewis, “Jeffrion Aubry, Voice of the Assembly,”; and Karen L. Murtagh. “Tribute to NYS Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry.” Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. Pro Se. May 2024. https://plsny.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Pro-Se-Vol.-34-No.-3-May-2024.pdf.

[10] John J. Goldman. “Rally Protests N.Y. Drug Laws.” Los Angeles Times. June 5, 2003. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-jun-05-na-protest5-story.html.

[11] The New York Times. “The Rockefeller Drug Rap.” Editorial. July 21, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/21/opinion/the-rockefeller-drug-rap.html.

[12] Robert Cristo. “Clyne Stunned in Race for Albany County DA.” The Record. September 15, 2004. https://www.troyrecord.com/2004/09/15/clyne-stunned-in-race-for-albany-county-da /.

[13] Michael Cooper. “New York State Votes to Reduce Drug Sentences.” The New York Times. December 8, 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/08/nyregion/new-york-state-votes-to-reduce-drug-sentences.html; and Drug Policy Alliance. “Governor Pataki Signs Limited Rockefeller Reform Bill.” Press release. August 30, 2005.

[14] Jeremy W. Peters. “Albany Reaches Deal to Repeal ’70s Drug Laws.” The New York Times. March 25, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/26/nyregion/26rockefeller.html; and Vera Institute of Justice. End of An Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City. January 2015. Report overview. https://www.vera.org/downloads/publications/drug-law-reform-new-york-city-fact-sheet.pdf.

[15] Drug Policy Alliance. “Advocates Celebrate: New York Embarks on New Direction, Developing a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs.” April 22, 2009. Press release. https://drugpolicy.org/news/advocates-celebrate-new-york-embarks-new-direction-developing-public-health-and-safety/.

[16] Raise the Age NY Coalition. Bill summary. Revised July 2020. Downloaded from https://raisetheageny.org/raising-the-age/; and Eli Hager. “The Fine Print in New York’s Raise the Age Law.” The Marshall Project. April 14, 2017. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/04/14/the-fine-print-in-new-york-s-raise-the-age-law.

[17] New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services. “Conflict and Trial Level Criminal Defense Standards.” Updated March 12, 2021. https://www.ils.ny.gov/node/78/conflict-and-trial-level-criminal-defense-standards.

[18] Paul N. Samuels and Tracie M. Gardner. “LAC Applauds Governor Cuomo’s 2019 Justice Agenda.” Legal Action Center. January 16, 2019. https://www.lac.org/news/lac-applauds-governor-cuomos-2019-justice-agenda; and Legal Action Center. “NY ATI/Reentry Coalition.” https://www.lac.org/major-project/ny-ati-reentry-coalition.

[19] Krystal Rodriguez. Discovery Reform in New York: Major Legislative Provisions. Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College and Center for Court Innovation. Updated May 2022. https://datacollaborativeforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Discovery-Reform-in-New-York_Revised-2022_6.2_FINAL.pdf.

[20] Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “Major Criminal Reforms Passed in New York.” Press release. April 1, 2019. https://katalcenter.org/release-major-criminal-justice-reforms-passed-in-new-york/.

[21] Veronica Riccobene. “New York State Passes the Nation’s Strongest Anti-Solitary Legislation.” Solitary Watch and The Appeal. April 2, 2021. https://solitarywatch.org/2021/04/02/new-york-state-passes-the-nations-strongest-anti-solitary-legislation/.

[22] Less Is More New York. “Governor Kathy Hochul Signs the Less Is More Act, Transformative Parole Reform Bill.” September 17, 2021. Press release. https://lessismoreny.org/press-release-govenor-signs-the-lessismoreny-act-into-law/.

[23] In 1997, about 35,000 people were incarcerated in jails in New York State: more than 18,000 in New York City and 16,168 in the rest of the state; see New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Justice Research and Performance. “Jail Population by County: Beginning 1997” (dataset). https://data.ny.gov/Public-Safety/Jail-Population-By-County-Beginning-1997/nymx-kgkn/data_preview. On average in April 2024, 16,370 people were incarcerated in jails in New York State; the average daily census was 6,258 in New York City and 10,112 in the rest of the state, a decrease of more than 53 percent since 1997; see New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. “Monthly Jail Population Trends.” May 1, 2024. 1, 2. https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/jail_population.pdf.

[24] At the end of 2009, 59,279 people were incarcerated in state prisons; during that year, the number decreased by 1,660. By the end of 2023, the state prison population had dropped to 32,766. See New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. DOCCS Fact Sheet. May 1, 2014. 3. https://doccs.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2024/05/doccs-fact-sheet-may-2024.pdf; and Heather C. West, William J. Sabol, and Sarah J. Greenman. Prisoners in 2009. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Updated October 27, 2011. 2. https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/p09.pdf.

[25] Raga Justin. “New York Officials Could Close up to Five Prisons This Year.” Times Union. April 19, 2014. https://www.timesunion.com/state/article/new-york-officials-close-five-prisons-year-19410068.php.

[26] At the beginning of 2009, 52,225 people were under parole supervision in New York State. Lauren E. Glaze, Thomas P. Bonczar, and Fan Zhang. “Probation and Parole in the United States, 2009.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. December 2010. Appendix Table 12. 33. https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus09.pdf. As of April 30, 2024, that number had dropped to 24,724 people statewide, a decrease of 52.7 percent since 2009. DOCCS Fact Sheet, May 1, 2014, 1. Also see Emily NaPier Singletary and gabriel sayegh. New York’s Less Is More Act: A Status Report on Implementation. #LessIsMoreNY Campaign. March 1, 2022. https://lessismoreny.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/New-Yorks-Less-Is-More-Act-A-Status-Report-on-Implementation-March-1-2022.pdf.

[27] Fernanda Nunes. “Passing the Torch on Criminal Justice Reform.” City & State New York. February 15, 2018. https://www.cityandstateny.com/policy/2018/02/passing-the-torch-on-criminal-justice-reform/178754/.

[28] Jacob Kaye. “Advocates Call On Gov to Sign Wrongful Convictions into Law.” Queens Daily Eagle. December 12, 2023. https://queenseagle.com/all/2023/12/22/advocates-call-on-gov-to-sign-wrongful-convictions-bill-into-law; and Associated Press. “New York Governor Vetoes Bill to Make Conviction Challenges Easier.” December 24, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/dec/24/new-york-governor-convictions-bill-veto-criminal-justice.

[29] New York State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie. “Assembly Announces Passage of Legislation That Removes Lifetime Ban on Jury Duty for Individuals with Felony Convictions.” June 7, 2024. Press release. https://nyassembly.gov/Press/?sec=story&story=110729.

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