New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws represent a misguided and ineffective regime for addressing drug use and addiction -- health issues, not criminal issues. With legislation passing this week by the state Assembly, New York may be ready to shift toward a more reasonable -- and affordable -- approach guided by public health and safety.
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers, most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses; many have no prior criminal record.
Approximately 12,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York state prisons -- nearly 21 percent of the prison population. Over 4,000 are serving long terms for simple possession. Nearly 90 percent of the people incarcerated are black or Latino, though whites use and sell illegal drugs at equal or higher rates.
As New York reels from the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, Gov. David Paterson and the Legislature are scrambling to close ever-expanding deficits. It costs New Yorkers $45,000 a year to keep someone locked up, while treatment costs a fraction of that.
Does it make sense to spend over $500 million every year on laws we know don't work? These laws did not stop the crack epidemic of the 1980s. They are completely incapable of stemming the accidental drug overdose epidemic hitting New York City and Long Island today. And they have turned the Department of Corrections into the state's largest, most costly and ineffective treatment provider.
The Assembly's bill would finally reform the failed Rockefeller laws. Sponsored by Corrections Committee Chairman -- and drug treatment counselor -- Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, Speaker Sheldon Silver and a host of others, the bill contains the four key elements: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases, so judges can place appropriate people in treatment; expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community-based drug treatment; fair sentencing reform; and retroactive sentencing relief for eligible people serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller laws.
The Assembly's proposal would not allow people who commit violence to be resentenced.
The Assembly could have done even more, such as including full repeal of the second felony offender law. Even so, the bill represents a significant step forward. Modest reforms of 2004 and 2005 continue to deny people the right to apply for shorter terms, and do not increase judicial discretion. After 2004, more people went to prison under Rockefeller drug laws than before.
The need for reform is no longer in debate. The question is, what kind of reform will we see inNew York? The Assembly has proposed real reform, advancing a public health and safety approach to drug use and addiction. This is the direction we need to go. Drug addiction shouldn't be a crime -- the real crime would be if reform was stymied yet again.
Proposed Drug Law Reforms
Assembly Bill A6085, introduced last week and expected to pass this week, includes the following provisions which balance safety and justice:
* Return discretion to sentencing judges to tailor the penalty to the facts and circumstances of each drug offense.
* Allow a sentence of probation and treatment where appropriate.
* Strengthen in-prison treatment and re-entry services.
* Expand the use of alternatives to incarceration, including community-based treatment, where appropriate.
* Allow certain eligible individuals incarcerated for low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing; individuals convicted of violent crimes are not eligible.
* Expand use of drug courts throughout New York.
* Increase penalties for sale of a controlled substance to a child.
* Establish a new "kingpin" crime for organized drug-trafficking.
March 5, 2009 -- New York Times (NY)
Assembly Votes to End Rockefeller Drug Laws
By Jeremy W. Peters
The State Legislature took pivotal steps on Wednesday toward repealing much of what remains of the state's 1970s-era drug laws, which have tied judges' hands and required them to impose mandatory prison terms for many nonviolent drug offenses.
The Assembly approved legislation, 96 to 46, that would restore judges' discretion in many lower-level drug-possession crimes that are felonies by eliminating laws that require a prosecutor's consent before judges can send certain felons to drug treatment instead of prison.
In addition, the measure would permit about 2,000 prisoners to apply to have their sentences reduced.
The same bill was introduced on Wednesday in the Senate, where Democratic leaders vowed to quickly take it up. But the task now confronting legislative leaders and Gov. David A. Paterson is to reconcile the Assembly bill -- which is considered the widest-reaching of the proposals under consideration -- with the governor's plan and the bill that Senate Democrats expect to pass after amending the Assembly bill.
Arriving at a proposal that all 32 Senate Democrats can agree
on may prove difficult. ''I don't think we have a consensus right
now,'' said Eric T.
Efforts to change the state's drug laws have for years prompted one of the most divisive debates in Albany. Bills aimed at broadly overhauling the statutes, known as the Rockefeller drug laws because Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller championed their approval, have routinely passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly only to die in the Senate, which until this year was controlled by Republicans.
With Democrats now in the majority in the Senate and with Mr. Paterson an avowed champion of repealing the laws, supporters see this year as offering the best chance to pass a plan that essentially does away with mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
''I think the stars are aligned,'' Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, said at a news conference Wednesday morning. ''Its time has come.''
Before a three-way compromise can be reached, several elements of the governor's plan that are not in the Assembly bill need to be addressed. They include requiring drug offenders to plead guilty as a condition of being sent to treatment and to be certified as addicted before they can enter treatment.
Another issue expected to be debated is whether the legislation should allow current prisoners to apply for resentencing.
The Legislature has already eliminated the stiffest provisions of the Rockefeller laws, doing away in 2004 with life sentences for drug crimes and reducing other penalties for the most serious offenses.
But supporters of the Assembly bill believe that their plan is an opportunity to finish what began in 2004 and fix a policy that they say singles out minorities.
''It hasn't worked,'' said Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Democratic assemblyman from Queens who has led efforts in the Assembly to rewrite drug sentencing laws. ''It's a failed policy that we can no longer sustain.''
Those supporting changes said the legislation would give New York an opportunity to catch up after falling behind states that have greatly expanded drug treatment programs as alternatives to prison.
''The general theme is states are making greater efforts to divert people into treatment programs, and they're starting to use prison not as a first resort but a secondary or last resort,'' said Gabriel Sayegh, the director of organizing and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a national drug law reform group.
''If the Legislature follows through with moving toward a public health approach, New Yorkcould potentially go from having some of the worst laws in the country to having some of the best.''
District attorneys have expressed concern that the changes would strip them of an important function as a check against too much judicial discretion.
''We've achieved a balance where we've preserved public safety and reduced our prison population,'' said Michael C. Green, the district attorney of Monroe County, which includesRochester. ''I look at that and say, 'Why do we want to take this system and make a seismic shift?' My fear is that you're going to disturb one of those trends.''
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.