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Advocates push for a revamp of the state's sentencing laws

Communities Not Cages.JPG
Ellen Abbott

Some state lawmakers and advocates are looking to overhaul the state’s sentencing laws, and a new campaign called “Communities Not Cages” is pushing a trio of bills that would change sentencing rules leftover from the Rockefeller-era drug laws.

Robert Blaylock of Syracuse was 18 when he went to prison, and spent the next 32 years there. Because of New York’s sentencing rules, once he served the minimum 20 years, he wasn’t able to get parole. He joined the “Communities Not Cages” movement in Syracuse because he believes these long prison stints, with no hope of release, do nothing to rehabilitate individuals.

Ellen Abbott
Robert Blaylock spent 32 years in prison, and wasn't able to get parole because of New York's sentencing laws

"The way they treat us, we come out not healed, but wounded and hurt,” said Blaylock. “So we take it back out on society. Because we say society is responsible for this."

Nyatwa Bullock, a Syracuse organizer for the campaign, said restrictive sentencing laws have damaged communities of color, that are most impacted by them.

“And it’s costing us too much money. And it’s generational. It’s happening to families. It could be my father or my child’s father,” Bullock said. “And it’s got to stop.”

As part of the “Communities Not Cages” movement, three pieces of legislation are being introduced in Albany this week. They would eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, allow incarcerated people to petition for resentencing and encourage rehabilitation through “good time” and “merit time” laws.

Advocates say laws in place now are remnants of the Rockefeller-era war on drugs, and disproportionately affect people of color. Martha Chaves said these strict sentencing laws are breaking families apart, like her son, who served a seven-year prison term with no hope of early release.

"It is unjust taking our Black kids away from their families,” said Chaves. “His children had to live seven years without their father."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.