BY CURTIS L. TAYLOR
It has been almost 11 years since Norma Arenas saw her son, Miguel, who is serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for his conviction under the Rockefeller drug laws.
But Arenas was in tears late yesterday after realizing that an agreement to change the tough drug laws, which were passed in 1973, could result in her son's early release.
"It has been 10 years that I don't see my son," Arenas, who suffers from a heart condition and other ailments, said in a phone interview from her South Bronx home. "I don't believe it ... I am so happy, I can't talk right now."
For Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years after being convicted as a first-time offender for selling 4 ounces of cocaine, yesterday held a great deal of emotion.
While the compromise is too late to help her, she was "happy because it will prevent another family from going through what my family went through."
"I may have suffered while being incarcerated, but this is the beginning of breaking a cycle that will spare my community and other families my pain," said Bartlett, who was convicted at 26, leaving her relatives to raise her four young children.
Cheri O'Donoghue expressed anger and disappointment at the news. The proposed changes would not reduce the 7- to 21-year sentence her son, Ashley, 21, was serving for trying to sell 2.6 ounces of cocaine last year.
"I don't think it affects him at all," she said. "He was a first-time offender and I think the sentence was ridiculously high and inhumane. Not to say that what he did was right, but this law does not give the judges discretion and there is not a treatment option."
Bartlett, who was granted clemency in 2000 by Gov. George Pataki, and O'Donoghue joined other advocates yesterday in calling for total repeal of what they said are "draconian drug laws."
"Of course more needs to be done, but I told the governor when he got me off that clemency was only putting a Band-Aid on the problem," said Bartlett, 46, who has dedicated her life to overturning the laws.
Local activist Randy Credico, who started organizing the repeal effort seven years ago, said the Legislature should have done more. The tentative agreement includes reducing the current 15-to-25-years-to-life maximum sentence to a sentence of 8 years to 20 years. It also includes eliminating the maximum term of life for the most serious offenses.
"After seven years, this is a small payoff," he said. "It is not reform, but it is a first step."
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who led a rally gainst the laws at City Hall last year, said he was "very happy and proud" of the agreement.
"We wanted more, but it's as much as we could have realistically hoped for," Simmons said.