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New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws

By Kevin Muscoreil, Prisoner of the Drug War

With the active support of then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the New York drug laws were enacted in 1973, instituting harsh prison sentences for a wide range of drug offenses. The punishments required by this law for the possession or sale of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs still rank among the most severe in the nation.

For example, this statute mandates a judge to impose a prison term of no less than fifteen years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic substance. The penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or background, whether the person is a first time or repeat offender.(1)

The small amount of drugs needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws make it one of the worst mandatory sentencing schemes in the country. These laws were enacted a quarter of a century ago when heroin addiction was at one of its peaks. Governor Rockefeller's personal solution to the drug problem was to require such long prison sentences, that no one would dare use them.

Before Rockefeller proposed these statutes, he had been heartbroken at seeing a close friend's family torn apart by a son's heroin addiction. Retired official, Warren Anderson said, "It was so close to the Governor that he really had a very personal reason for the degree of severity."(2)

Rockefeller's plan was highly criticized by both the mayor of New York City, John D. Lindsay, and his police chief Patrick Murphy.(3) They argued that these stiff sentences would have little effect on the compulsions of drug users, and would eventually bankrupt the state as courts and prisons overflowed with drug addicts and small time drug users.

Governor Rockefeller included plea negotiation restrictions for non-violent drug offenders and maintained the plea negotiation provisions for violent criminals. For example, an A-I felony drug offender can only plea down to an A-II felony. A violent A-I felony offender (a murderer) can plea down to any felony the district attorney allows.

These statutes result in the arrest, prosecution and long term of imprisonment of minor dealers or persons marginally involved in the drug trade. Major traffickers usually escape its sanctions. The problem with the Rockefeller Drug Laws is that they place the main criteria for culpability on the weight of the drugs in a person's possession when he or she is apprehended, no role in a narcotics transaction need be present.

These laws result directly in the following misguided practice: Law enforcement agencies focus their efforts on those minor actors in the trade who are the most easily arrested, prosecuted and penalized, rather than on the middle and high level criminals who are drug dealing true masterminds and profiteers." - The New York Correctional Association 1997 Fact Sheet

Morris Lasker, a senior federal district court judge appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson said that "mandatory minimums have not worked" because they have turned judges into "unwilling executioners" who cannot take into consideration mitigating circumstances."(4)

The Harvard University study of 1,175 inmates in Massachusetts prisons found that nearly half of the offenders sentenced to long mandatory-minimum terms for drug related offenses had no record of violent crime. Also, it was concluded that jailing nonviolent drug offenders does not cure drug addiction.

The Harvard study was done by an Assistant Attorney General on leave, hardly someone "soft on crime." His conclusion that mandatory sentencing laws are "wasting prison resources on nonviolent, low-level offenders and reducing resources available to lock up violent offenders" should be required reading for lawmakers in Albany and Washington D.C. It all should be read by taxpayers who have to foot the bill for these foolish, politically inspired policies.(5)

1. Correctional Association of New York, 135 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003. Fact sheet

2. Stashendo, Joel. "Rockefeller Drug Laws Prevail Despite Sentencing Reforms." Buffalo News, 30 May 1995.

3. Treason, Joseph B. "Ideas and Trends: It's Pataki Sounding Like Cuomo." New York Times, 5 Feb 1995

4. Fields, Gary. "Judges Condemn Set-minimum Sentences." USA Today 10 Sept 1997

5. Editorial. "Costly Drug Laws Snare Wrong Convicts." Buffalo News, 30 Nov 1997

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