As many as 1,500 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders will be able to apply for release or shorter sentences under reforms to New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws that went into effect Wednesday. The partial reforms also mean increased judicial discretion in sentencing, allowing judges to send some offenders to treatment instead of prison.
The reforms were signed into law in April by Gov. David Paterson (D) after he and the state legislature came to agreement on the issue. They build on earlier partial reforms passed in 2004 that addressed the lengthy sentences assigned to more serious drug offenders.
"Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, we did not treat the people who were addicted. We locked them up," Paterson said Wednesday at the Brooklyn Court House. "Families were broken, money was wasted, and we continued to wrestle with a statewide drug problem. The reforms that take effect today address those problems. By returning judicial discretion to the courtroom, we are reuniting families and fighting criminal activity and addiction in our communities," he said.
Because the reforms eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences and allow judges to order eligible defendants to treatment or diversion over prosecutorial objections, the State District Attorneys Association opposed the reforms. But they were championed by a formidable Drop the Rock coalition of drug policy, criminal justice, social justice, and other groups calling for repeal of the Rockefeller laws, as well as by the now Democrat-controlled legislature and statehouse.
"As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on Rockefeller charges and another 12 fighting the inhumane laws, I am thrilled that the law has been changed," said Anthony Papa, author of 15 Years to Life. "But, Rockefeller will only be real when those who are behind bars are allowed to come home and those who need help get treatment instead of a jail cell."
"New Yorkers fought for decades to reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, and we finally succeeded this year," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now we need to make Rockefeller reform work. Today marks another step towards our state moving in new direction on drug policy, one based on public health and safety. Thankfully, legal and human service agencies are stepping up to implement reform."
"Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by such a harsh and racist sentencing scheme," said Shreya Mandal, mitigation specialist for the Legal Aid Society. "These reforms will allow people to reclaim their dignity as we shift from a punitive criminal justice model to a much needed holistic public health model. Now it is time to see this reform through by empowering formerly incarcerated individuals with comprehensive re-entry planning." The Legal Aid Society is already working on 270 cases that should qualify for early release, according to the Associated Press.
But there is still work to be done getting drug offenders
out of prison. While as many as 1,500 could get out early, they
will leave behind another 12,000 or so, according to the most
recent figures from the state Department of Corrections. That's
more than 20% of all New York state prisoners.
October 9, 2009 -- AlterNet (US)
Change We Can Believe in: NY's Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Takes Effect
By Gabriel Sayegh, AlterNet
Jail for drug offenses is no longer mandatory in New York: judges can send people suffering from addiction into a range of programs, such as treatment and mental health services.
This week, two essential components of Rockefeller Drug Law reform go into effect: restoration of judicial discretion and resentencing eligibility for some people currently incarcerated under the failed laws. The enactment of these hard-won reforms signals a major shift in New York's approach to drug abuse and dependency.
By restoring discretion, incarceration for drug offenses is no longer mandatory: judges once more have the ability to send individuals suffering from addiction into a range of programs, such as treatment and mental health services. In addition, nearly 1,500 people currently incarcerated under the old laws for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses can now petition the court for resentencing. If approved by a judge, many of these people will finally be released.
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated extremely harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although intended to target "kingpins," most of the people incarcerated under the laws were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many had no prior criminal records. The laws marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug abuse and dependency through the criminal justice system, instead of through health-oriented systems. Unfortunately, the Rockefeller Drug Laws became the template for implementing the nation's drug war.
At a ceremony this week marking enactment of the reforms, Gov. David Paterson noted that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were an utter failure. "Families were broken, money was wasted and we continued to wrestle with the statewide drug problem," he said.
And he's right. New York spends more than $525 million per year to incarcerate people for drug offenses -- 66% have never been to prison before, and 80% have never been convicted of a violent felony. It costs approximately $45,000 to incarcerate a person for one year in New York, while treatment costs an average of $15,000 per year and is proven to be 15 times more effective at reducing crime and recidivism. What's more, the laws have led to extraordinary racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system. Studies show that rates of addiction, illicit drug use and sales are approximately equal among racial groups. But while blacks and Latinos make up only 34% of New YorkState's population, they comprise nearly 90% of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies. This is one of the highest levels of racial disparities in the nation, and is widely considered a human rights disgrace.
Since passage of the reforms, advocates and legal and human service providers have prepared for implementation. They've focused first on resentencing and community reentry for thousands of people who have served long, inhumane prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Legal aid and public defender agencies notified incarcerated people of their eligibility for resentencing, while hundreds of human agencies around the state have volunteered to provide support to those released from prison under the new laws. In New York City alone, more than 100 human service agencies have agreed to provide housing, job training, drug treatment, and more to people returning from prison--even before funding has been allocated for these services. These are just a few examples of the broad-based commitment, across multiple sectors, to make Rockefeller reform work.
Shreya Mandal, a mitigation specialist with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, is coordinating reentry plans for dozens of currently incarcerated people. As a social worker and lawyer, she understands the challenges and opportunities resulting from these historic changes. "Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by both addiction and a harsh and racist sentencing scheme," she said.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have come to represent the failures of the U.S. war on drugs -policies which are ineffective, racist, wasteful and unjust. With a shift to a health-oriented approach, New York could become a model for new direction in drug policies, based in science, compassion, health and human rights. Now that's change to believe in.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.