Ozone Park man first to get break since drug law change

By Michael Morton

“I didn't think it was ever going to happen,” the inmate, 37-year-old Stacey Johnson, said, referring to years of efforts by advocates to reform the strict laws passed by former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the mid-1970s. Appearing before Judge Arthur Cooperman in Queens Supreme Court Jan. 26, Johnson had his sentence reduced to eight years, the new minimum. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown did not oppose the change.Johnson, previously of 103-25 101st St., has been locked up for six years. After arriving at JFK on a flight from Trinidad in 1999, he was stopped by customs inspectors because of his unusually large shoes, the DA said. The inspectors found more than one pound of cocaine worth about $25,000 in the soles and heels of his shoes and arrested the 37-year-old. Johnson was convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance in 2001 and sentenced by Cooperman to 15 years to life in prison, the minimum under the original Rockefeller drug laws. The Ozone Park resident entered the maximum-security Eastern Correctional Facility upstate shortly thereafter, becoming eligible for parole in 2009.It was Johnson's first conviction and first involvement in drug activity, the DA said. For years Rockefeller reform advocates have criticized the laws as unduly harsh, particularly for first-time offenders like Johnson, minorities and those at the bottom of the drug food chain. The state Legislature finally passed a bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), in December that changed the laws. It was signed by Gov. George Pataki later that month and went into effect Jan. 13.The new law reduces the penalties for first-time offenders and those previously convicted of a non-violent offense. For instance, those convicted of an A-1 crime, the most serious offense on the books, now face between eight years and 20 years in prison rather than 15 years to life. While those already convicted of lower-level crimes will be eligible for work release and treatment programs under the new law, only the 446 current A-1 prisoners can apply for resentencing, including about 40 from Queens. Johnson was the first to obtain a court hearing.”I'm happy, man,” Johnson said after his court appearance. He was handcuffed, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit and escorted by the detectives from the DA's office who brought him from prison for the resentencing. “To be able to come home to my family, resume my life and become a productive citizen in society.”Johnson has a 12-year-old daughter who lives with his mother in Brooklyn. The girl writes him twice a month and calls every other Friday.”I let her see me one time, but she got emotional,” he said. “She's a little stronger now-she knows there's an opportunity to come home.” During his imprisonment, Johnson's mother and daughter had lobbied for Rockefeller reform, he said.After the hearing, Johnson was taken back to prison but could be out in six months if he is paroled, a decision to be made by the state Parole Board. DA Brown described him as a “model inmate” and said he had completed his GED and other programs while in prison. The criminal history and prison record of other A-1 drug convicts will be considered if they apply for resentencing, the DA said.”My office will review each drug case sentence reduction application with the same deliberation and care as used in this case,” Brown said.”There's a lot of inmates,” Johnson said.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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