Section: MAIN
Page: A1
Date: Tuesday, March 23, 2004

A TALE OF YEARS LOST TO PRISON
Book recounts life of Elaine Bartlett, a first-time offender who served 16 years for selling cocaine

KATE GURNETT Staff writer

In 1983, Elaine Bartlett was 26 with four kids and on welfare. She was working off the books at a Harlem beauty parlor when she met George Deets. Deets stood out as the only white guy in her salon. People called him Charlie, the guy who liked to get high.

Nobody knew Deets was an ex-convict from Mechanicville who grossed $1 million a year in marijuana sales and stayed out of jail by setting up other dealers for the State Police.

I got an easy way for you to make $2,500, Bartlett recalls Deets saying. Carry four ounces of cocaine to Albany for me.

Bartlett was no dealer. In fact, she'd never been arrested. But Thanksgiving was coming, and she could use the money. It sounded simple, if nerve-racking. She said yes.

On Monday, two decades after her arrest, Bartlett joined state legislators at the Corning Tower to celebrate the newly released "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,'' by Jennifer Gonnerman.

But whether state leaders will complete their reforms of the law that gave lengthy sentences to Bartlett and scores of other first-time, nonviolent offenders is uncertain.

Bartlett spent 16 years in prison and was granted clemency in 1999 by Gov. George Pataki.

Last year, lawmakers failed to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws, despite rallies and efforts by music mogul Russell Simmons. State district attorneys opposed reforms, except removing life sentences for top offenders.

Enacted in 1973 under former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the statutes carry harsh mandatory sentences and have failed to snare drug kingpins and violent dealers, while sweeping up scores of low-level runners. As other states mimicked New York's strict laws, the U.S. prison population exploded from 200,000 then to 2 million today.

Bartlett's 16-year incarceration cost New York taxpayers $500,000, Gonnerman said Monday. Bartlett's boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, who warned her not to transport the drugs, wound up traveling with her to Albany. He still is in prison. Deets died of a drug overdose in 1993.

On Sunday, Gonnerman's book graced the cover of The New York Times Book Review, hailed as journalism's first in-depth look at Bartlett's re-entry into a country that releases 600,000 mostly unskilled convicts each year.

In researching the story as a project for The Village Voice, where she is a staff writer, Gonnerman found the case involved several well-known Albany legal experts, from attorney Tom Neidl, who prosecuted Bartlett, to state Supreme Court Judge Joseph Teresi, who was her public defender. The undercover trooper who bought the cocaine was Kenneth Cook, now head of security for the New York Racing Association.

Neidl recalls when Bartlett and Brooks rejected plea deals of five years to life. "I really hoped they would take it, because the proof was overwhelming. She would have been out years and years ago. I just felt bad because I knew what was going to happen. I never lost an A-1 (felony) trial. They're usually very good proof. And juries don't like drugs. They're fed up with it.''

Bartlett said Monday she thought the court would hear her side. "I'm not saying I didn't commit a crime. But the time I was incarcerated didn't fit the crime. I just delivered the package. They painted me to be a big kingpin. Even (defense attorney) Joe Teresi didn't believe me. They offered me the deal if I went back to set up other dealers. Who was I going to set up -- other moms on welfare?''
The judge, John Clyne, known as "Maximum John,'' had made a career out of stiff sentences. He gave Bartlett 20 years to life, five years over the minimum. He gave Brooks 25 to life.

Teresi did not return a call seeking comment.

A defense attorney for the past nine years, Neidl thinks the drug laws are too stiff. "You can get 25 to life for possession of a certain amount of stuff, which is a lot more than you can get for beating somebody's brains out,'' he explained.
Opponents argue New York's drug laws jail nonviolent offenders, addicts and low-end mules for years longer than murderers, rapists and robbers.

Meanwhile, Gonnerman writes, New York imprisons people at 14 times the rate of Japan. Almost 7 percent of U.S. adults have been convicted of a felony.
"America has become a nation of ex-cons,'' she wrote. "Almost everybody who goes to prison eventually comes home.'' For many, like Bartlett, coming home can prove tougher than prison as they struggle to work and live in impoverished neighborhoods.

Last week, state Senate Democrats announced their latest reform plan, which would shorten sentences, boost treatment and allow for more probation.

Meanwhile, "young mothers are still in prison who are first-time offenders, they shouldn't really have to wait 10 years,'' actor Charles Grodin said at the reception. It was Grodin's lobbying that helped Bartlett win clemency. She has become a vocal activist for reform.

"The work I do now helps me to sleep at night," she said Monday. "It's not just my life story. It's the life story of so many American families. It needs to be changed.''

©2004 Times Union