Rockefeller Drug Laws

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Press Release: Albany Agreement a Step Toward Dismantling Rockefeller, but Not a Done Deal and Not Repeal

CONTACT:

Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363 / [email protected]

NYCLU: Albany Agreement a Step Toward Dismantling Rockefeller, but Not a Done Deal and Not Repeal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 26, 2009 – The deal reached in principle late last night between Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders could be an important step toward dismantling New York State’s draconian drug laws, said the leadership of the New York Civil Liberties Union. But what has been outlined so far is only an agreement in principle – not law – and it does not fully repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Substance abuse is a public health issue,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “For 36 years, New York State has been locking up people who suffer from addiction and mental illness – but that didn’t make us safer, remove drugs from the streets or serve the interests of our communities. Letting go of this backwards, ineffective approach and looking toward new ways to promote public health and public safety is an important step in the right direction, but it is just that – a step.”

The agreement appears to embrace – for the first time and in a meaningful way – two important principles of reform: It includes a significant reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and it includes a significant restoration of the ability for judges to send drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail.

“The intention of this agreement is a fundamental shift of public policy on drug abuse, away from mandatory incarceration and toward a public health approach,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “That said, the proposal leaves in place some significant elements of the Rockefeller scheme. Extremely harsh sentences still exist. And there is still a mandatory minimum sentence for low-level, nonviolent repeat offenders – the very people who may need treatment and rehabilitation the most.”

Though there appears to be a conceptual agreement on many Rockefeller issues, the details are yet to be drafted. Still to be resolved is the definition of substance abuse and dependency. Also under negotiation are the procedures by which eligibility for treatment is determined. These details are significant because the wrong result could undermine the whole effort.

“While we’re hopeful about the direction our state is heading in terms of drug laws, this is a complex issue and draft legislation has not been made public,” Lieberman said. “And most importantly, the question of implementation remains. New York appears to be poised to embrace a public health approach, but the devil is in the details and we don’t know the details yet.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most trapped by the laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison suffer from substance abuse problems or issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment.

For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have fought to untie the hands of judges and allow addiction to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white.

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Location: 
NY
United States

Sentencing: Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Deal Near, NY Times Says

The New York Times reported Thursday that a tentative agreement, on principle, to reform New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws had been reached by Gov. David Paterson (D) and the state legislature. The state Senate has already passed its version of Rockefeller law reform; what remains to be done is to reach agreement with Paterson and Senate leaders, as well as wooing back Senate members if the final bill diverges too far from what they passed.

But it isn't a done deal yet, and reform leaders qualify their attitude as "cautiously optimistic" and holding firm for real reform. The devil is the details, they noted.

"This agreement is a good sign that progress is being made to enact real reform, but it is not final, and meaningful reform will be determined by the details," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The final deal must include the core components of meaningful reform: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases including 2nd time offenses, sentencing reform, expansion of community drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and retroactive sentencing relief for those serving unjust, long sentences for low-level offenses."

Under the tentative agreement, judges would have considerable discretion in sentencing restored. They would be able to divert first-time nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison for all but the most serious drug offenses. Judges are currently bound by mandatory minimum sentences in the Rockefeller laws to send to prison people convicted of possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Judges would also have the ability to send some repeat offenders to treatment, but only if they were found to be drug dependent.

The agreement does not represent repeal of the laws, but rather reform, and comes on the heels of a spirited protest outside of Gov. Paterson's New York City office yesterday where more than two hundred people, including Russell Simmons and Reverend Calvin Butts, called on the governor to keep his word and reform the laws. Another demonstration to pressure the politicians was set for today.

"I stood with the governor in 2002 when he was arrested protesting these laws, so I know he believes in meaningful reform," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. "The deal has to be done, and done right. New York's experiment with this criminal justice approach has failed. It's time for the governor and Legislative leaders to take the first step toward a public health and safety approach to drugs."

Not everybody is happy about the presumptive deal. State district attorneys have fought hard to retain effective control over sentencing. Under current law with its mandatory minimums, prosecutors' charging decisions rather than judges' discretion effectively set sentences, and they want to keep that power. On the other side of the equation, some veteran reform activists are denouncing anything short of full repeal as a sell-out.

Stay tuned.

Press Release: Hundreds Rally at Governor's NYC Office, Demand End of Rockefeller Drug Laws

CONTACT:

Drop the Rock, Caitlin Dunklee: 646.269.7344

New York Civil Liberties Union: Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363

Drug Policy Alliance: Tony Newman, 646.335.5384

Hundreds Rally at Governor’s NYC Office, Demand End of Rockefeller Drug Laws

March 25, 2009 – Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied today in front of Gov. David Paterson’s Manhattan office, urging the governor and legislative leaders to enact a sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state’s infamous mandatory-minimum drug sentencing scheme.

Speakers – including hip hop mogul and reform advocate Russell Simmons and the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church – called on lawmakers to seize this historic opportunity to end the unjust and ineffective laws.

“New York’s drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow Laws of the 21st Century,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities. Governor Paterson and our legislative leaders must finally put an end to this endless cycle of failure and injustice.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated are convicted of low-level offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison under the Rockefeller laws suffer from substance abuse problems; many others struggle with issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. About 90 percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white.

“Today we stand at the doorstep of change, and we call on the governor, the state assembly leader and the senate majority leader to fulfill their promise to make that change to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all,” Simmons said. “We have all been working hard for too many years to not restore full judicial discretion and give judges the option to send people with addictions to treatment rather than prison. The hip-hop community will continue to seek the change that we all know is right.”

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state’s drug sentencing scheme remains intact. These laws deny judges the authority to place people suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness into treatment programs.

“For 36 years, New York State has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by allowing the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws to serve as a stimulus package for rural upstate prison communities,” said Glenn Martin, vice president of The Fortune Society. “No longer can we continue to lock up drug addicted people from poor urban communities, simply because policy makers lack a vision for upstate economic development.”

In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting the sweeping overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki.

“Seven years ago, David Paterson, then a State Senator from Harlem, was handcuffed in an act of civil disobedience aimed at pressing Governor Pataki to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws.  Five years ago, as Senate Minority Leader, he proposed sweeping changes to the harsh statutes” says Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Drop the Rock Campaign. “Now, as Governor, his constituents are rallying to urge him to exercise the leadership he was once known for.”

“We are here to remind Governor Paterson of his past promises and to urge him to return to his better political self,” state Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association.  “His record tells us that he’s fully aware of these laws’ harsh effects, that they are wasteful, ineffective, and marked by a stark racial bias.  It is time for him as governor to exercise leadership in removing the stain of these notorious statutes from New York’s penal code.”

“In 2002, Gov. Paterson stood by my side as a senator from Harlem New York and spoke bravely about changing the laws that heavily affected his constituency,” said Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance and former prisoner under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “Now as governor he has the power to transform those words into action that will finally achieve meaningful reform.”

“For 36 years, the Rockefeller Drug Laws have filled our prisons, emptied the taxpayer’s pockets and have had no effect whatsoever on New York State’s drug use, especially in communities of color, except to turn young people into recidivist felons,” said George Bethos, leader of NYC AIDS Housing Network & Voices Of Community Advocates And Leaders (VOCAL). “Repeal these laws immediately or have society continue to pay the price.”

“We want to see the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted each year on criminalizing chemical dependency in poor urban areas reinvested in those very same communities targeted by these laws,” said Kym Clark, director of FREE! Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment. “We need livable wage jobs, educational resources, and access to health care, for starters.”

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Location: 
New York, NY
United States

Rally to end New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws

Hundreds of people, including the families of those in prison for drug offenses, people who were formerly incarcerated, doctors, lawyers and advocates, will rally at Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office to urge him and legislative leaders to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh sentences for sale or possession of small amounts of drugs. Most of the thousands of people incarcerated under Rockefeller are low-level drug offenders, and most come from just a handful of low-income New York City neighborhoods. Ninety percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white. In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting a proposed overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki. Now hundreds of people will gather outside his office to demand an end to the outdated, discriminatory laws.
Date: 
Wed, 03/25/2009 - 1:00pm
Location: 
633 3rd Ave. (between 40th and 41st)
New York, NY
United States

Press Release: Hundreds to Rally Wednesday at Paterson's NYC Office to End Rockefeller Drug Laws

For Immediate Release: March 23, 2009 Contact: Jennifer Carnig at 212.607.3363 or [email protected], Correctional Association Contacts: Caitlin Dunklee at 646-269-7344, Bob Gangi at 917-327-7648 Wednesday: Hundreds to Rally at Paterson’s NYC Office to End Rockefeller Drug Laws March 23, 2009 – On Wednesday, hundreds of people, including the families of those in prison for drug offenses, people who were formerly incarcerated, doctors, lawyers and advocates, will rally at Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office to urge him and legislative leaders to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh sentences for sale or possession of small amounts of drugs. Most of the thousands of people incarcerated under Rockefeller are low-level drug offenders, and most come from just a handful of low-income New York City neighborhoods. Ninety percent are black or Latino even though most people who use and sell drugs are white. In 2002, Paterson, then a state senator, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience promoting a proposed overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws outside of the New York City offices of then-Governor George Pataki. Now hundreds of people will gather outside his office to demand an end to the outdated, discriminatory laws. What: Rally to end New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws When: Wednesday, March 25, 1 p.m. Where: Governor Paterson’s office, 633 3rd Ave., between 40th and 41st Who: The Rev. Calvin Butts, Abyssinian Baptist Church Drop the Rock New York Civil Liberties Union Correctional Association of New York Drug Policy Alliance The Fortune Society Exponents Mothers of the Disappeared Center for Community Alternatives Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers (ASAP) The Bronx Defenders Women’s Prison Association Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment (FREE) JusticeWorks Community - xxx -
Location: 
New York, NY
United States

Sentencing: New York Senate to Address Rockefeller Drug Law Reform in Budget -- Meanwhile, Another Damning Study Appears

The New York Assembly passed a Rockefeller drug law reform bill last Wednesday, with the state Senate expected to take action shortly. But last Friday, the Senate's Democratic leaders decided to fold their version of the bill into their larger budget proposals, which will be taken up later this month.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/fairness4.jpg
June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
According to the Albany Times-Union, Senate Democrats, who control the chamber by a margin of 32 to 30, want to avoid being tagged as "soft on crime" by their Republican counterparts. With the Senate version of the Rockefeller reform bill submerged within the broader budget bills, senators will not have to actually stand up and vote for the reforms, just for the overall budget package.

"Our position is these bills should be taken up on the merits and not folded into a budget bill," said Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif, whose party would like to see Democrats forced to vote for "freeing drug dealers."

"It's clear that it's as much of a budget issue as it is a sentencing issue," said Senate Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran, noting that imprisoning people or subjecting them to drug treatment both have financial costs. He denied that Democrats took this route because they lacked the votes to pass Rockefeller reform on its own.

While the politicians in Albany are dancing around each other, yet another report has been released demonstrating the disastrous impact more than three decades of Rockefeller drug laws has had on the state. The report, "Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective," was produced by the New York Civil Liberties Union and examines the economic and social impact of the Rockefeller laws on the state as a whole and on its largest cities: Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse.

In a demographic analysis of who is sent to prison and for what in New York, the report found huge racial and geographic disparities. In New York City, for example, neighborhoods with just 4% of the city's adult population accounted for 25% of those sent to prison. More than half of those sent up the river went on drug charges, and 97% were non-white. Similar numbers come in for other big Empire State cities.

"New York's drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow laws of the 21st Century," said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director and the report's lead author. "Prosecution of drug offenses has sent hundreds of thousands to prison, most of whom were charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses. The Rockefeller drug laws have been a driving force in incarcerating a prison population that is almost exclusively black and brown."

"The Rockefeller drug laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. "Yet, after 36 years of failure, our state continues locking up the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Justice and common sense require comprehensive reform."

The report makes several recommendations for reform, including:

  • Reduce sentences for those convicted of drug-related crimes.
  • Restore judicial discretion and end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
  • Develop and invest in a statewide alternative to incarceration model to provide supervised treatment, education and employment training for those who would be better served by diversion than by prison.
  • Provide retroactive sentencing relief for those already incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws.

"Faced with a major recession and a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, New York cannot afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars locking up nonviolent drug offenders," Lieberman said. "Money saved through reforming the drug-sentencing laws could be spent helping struggling New Yorkers get back on their feet."

The Assembly has done its duty. Now it is up to the state Senate and Gov. David Patterson (D) to come up with a real reform bill at least as good as the Assembly's.

NBC Insults Marijuana Users

Once again, we find the press struggling to cover drug policy reform without resorting to derogatory epithets:

State Moves Toward Lighter Sentences for Potheads
By Scott Ross

The state Assembly has struck a blow for the state's stoners by voting to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws that have threatened so many tokers with the wrong kind of joint. [NBCNewYork.com]

This is really an achievement in childish drug reporting in that it not only sounds ridiculous, it actually renders the story utterly frivolous and misleading. Marijuana arrests are a problem in New York to be sure, but simple possession is technically decriminalized already. Rockefeller reform is primarily not about marijuana at all. It's about reforming wildly draconian sentencing guidelines for a variety of drug offenses. Framing it as a marijuana policy reform is just wrong. Many of the worst excesses of the Rockefeller laws have nothing at all to do with marijuana.

Sadly, it looks as though the author loved his dumb headline so much, he destroyed the entire story just so he could use it. It's pure journalistic malpractice.

Please take a moment to click over there and leave a polite comment.

Press Release: NYCLU Announces Findings about Statewide Impact of Rockefeller Drug Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 11, 2009 CONTACT: Jennifer Carnig at 212.607.3363 or [email protected] NYCLU Announces Findings about Statewide Impact of Rockefeller Drug Laws March 11, 2009 – The New York Civil Liberties today released a detailed report illustrating the disastrous effects the Rockefeller Drug Laws have inflicted on New York State. The report analyzes the drug laws’ economic and social impact on the entire state, and its largest cities: Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse. The report – The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective – presents overwhelming evidence that New York’s mandatory minimum drug-sentencing scheme has failed to improve public safety or deter drug use. It documents the grave harm the drug laws cause to low-income communities of color, and it calls on lawmakers to adopt a public health approach to addressing substance abuse. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Yet, after 36 years of failure, our state continues locking up the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Justice and common sense require comprehensive reform.” Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison under these laws suffer from substance abuse problems; many others struggle with issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment. The mass incarceration of drug offenders rips parents away from children. As of 2002, an estimated 11,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses, including 1,000 women, were parents of young children. Close to 25,000 children in New York State had parents in prison convicted of nonviolent drug charges. Some 50 percent of mothers and fathers in prison for drug convictions did not receive visits from their children. Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state’s drug sentencing scheme remains intact. These laws deny judges the authority to place people suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness into treatment programs. For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have fought to untie the hands of judges and allow addiction to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Latinos comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though government research shows that most people using illegal drugs are white. “New York’s drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow laws of the 21st Century,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director and the report’s lead author. “Prosecution of drug offenses has sent hundreds of thousands to prison, most of whom were charged with low-level, non-violent offenses. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have been a driving force in incarcerating a prison population that is almost exclusively black and brown.” The report features demographic maps created by the Justice Mapping Center that analyze who is sent to prison for drug offenses from the state’s five largest cities: Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse. The maps depict the racial and ethnic bias inherent in the state’s drug policy and illustrate the exorbitant cost of locking up drug offenders. For example, 25 percent of adults in New York City sent to prison in 2006 came from neighborhoods with just 4 percent of the city’s adult population. More than half were admitted for drug offenses, and 97 percent were black or Latino. In Buffalo, 25 percent of adults sent to prison come from areas with just 6 percent of the city’s adult population. One in four is admitted for drug offenses and 91 percent are black or Latino. The maps also show the enormous cost of combating drug-related crime through massive incarceration. For example, taxpayers spent more than $27.5 million to imprison Rochester residents convicted of drug offenses in 2006, and another $21 million to imprison Albany residents convicted of drug offenses that year. More than $440 million was spent to incarcerate New York City residents sent to prison in 2006 for drug offenses. Based on estimates calculated by the state Commission on Sentencing Reform, taxpayers will pay about $600 million to incarcerate drug offenders in 2009 alone. “Faced with a major recession and a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, New York cannot afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars locking up nonviolent drug offenders,” Lieberman said. “Money saved through reforming the drug-sentencing laws could be spent helping struggling New Yorkers get back on their feet.” The report makes several recommendations for reform, including: • Reduce sentences for those convicted of drug-related crimes. • Restore judicial discretion and end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. • Develop and invest in a statewide alternative to incarceration model to provide supervised treatment, education and employment training for those who would be better served by diversion than by prison. • Provide retroactive sentencing relief for those already incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “Imprisonment for drug-related crimes should be the last resort, reserved for truly violent offenders,” Perry said. “Adopting a public health model to address the problems related to substance abuse will not only save taxpayers money, it will move the state toward a more fair and effective strategies for promoting justice and public safety.” To read or download a copy of the report – including the maps – visit www.nyclu.org/rockefeller-report. -xxx-
Location: 
NY
United States

Press Advisory: NYCLU to Announce New Findings about Statewide Impact of Rockefeller Drug Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 10, 2009 – Tomorrow, the New York Civil Liberties Union will release a detailed report analyzing the effects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws on New York State. The report studies incarceration patterns in terms of their economic and social impact on the entire state, as well as on its biggest cities: Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse.

The report – The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective – presents overwhelming evidence that New York’s mandatory minimum drug sentencing scheme has failed on all fronts. The laws have not made New York State safer, nor have they reduced the availability of drugs or deterred their use.

It also presents provocative new maps created by the Justice Mapping Center that analyze every major urban center in the state, illustrating who goes to prison for drug offenses, where they lived before imprisonment and what it costs to lock them up.

The NYCLU will hold a media briefing in Albany to walk journalists through the report’s findings and recommendations for reform. Reporters statewide are invited to call a toll-free number to listen and ask questions.

What:

Media briefing about new report, The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective

When:

11 a.m. Wednesday, March 11

Where:

Marsh, Wassermann & McHugh, 677 Broadway, Albany. Free garage parking.

OR 1-800-351-6809, passcode 63087

Who:

  • Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director and author of the report
  • Jeff Aubry, Assembly Member, chair of Committee on Correction and lead sponsor of just passed Rockefeller reform legislation
  • John Dunne, Republican New York State senator from 1966 to 1989 and original sponsor of the Rockefeller Drug Laws
  • Eric Cadora, director of the Justice Mapping Center and creator of drug incarceration maps of Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse and New York State
  • Marsha Weissman, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives
  • Todd Clear, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College
  • Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, vice president of health policy for the New York Academy of Medicine

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Location: 
Albany, NY
United States

Feature: New York Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Bill -- Fight Moves to the Senate

The New York Assembly Wednesday passed a bill that would repeal much of the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Enacted in 1973 under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R), the laws are some of the toughest in the nation and have served as a model for "tough on crime" legislation across the country in the years since then.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/fairness4.jpg
June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
By a vote of 96-46, the Assembly approved A 6085, which restores judges' discretion in sentencing low level drug offenders by gutting provisions in the law that require prosecutors to approve a judge's decision to divert someone from prison to drug treatment. The bill would also expand the state's drug court system by authorizing one for each county in the state. The bill contains provisions denying probation or local jail sentences to adults selling drugs to minors, dealers who deal while armed, and "drug kingpins."

Now, all eyes turn to the state Senate, where an identical bill has been introduced. Complicating matters is that the New York State Sentencing Commission last month released its own, much less reformist recommendations, which are supposed to be Gov. David Paterson's (D) guide to reform legislation. The governor is not bound by the commission majority's recommendations, but it is not clear yet just what Paterson will do.

Thanks to the Rockefeller laws -- and despite reforms in 2004 and 2005 that had no impact on less serious offenders imprisoned under them -- nearly 12,000 people are currently behind bars for drugs in New York. Even after the 2004-2005 tinkering, the state prison system continues to be flooded with new Rockefeller law victims. More than 5,000 people were sent to prison for nonviolent drug offenses last year.

More than 42% of Rockefeller law prisoners -- more than 5,000 people -- are doing hard time for simple drug possession, many of them convicted of the lowest level drug felonies, which involve only small amounts of drugs. For instance, a half-gram of cocaine can earn a Class D felony charge. As of last month, 1,098 people were imprisoned for that offense.

The mass imprisonment of drug offenders comes at a substantial cost to Empire State taxpayers. According to the Correctional Association of New York, the state spends $525 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders and has spent $1.5 billion on building prisons to house them.

"More than 35 years after the Rockefeller drug laws were enacted, it is clear that these laws mandating imprisonment for even lower-level offenders have failed to effectively combat drug abuse or reduce the incidence of violent crime," said Assembly leader Rep. Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) before the vote Wednesday. "This legislation restores humanity to drug policy here in New York. It expands the sentencing options available to judges, without endangering the public. Judges are in the best position to know who is deserving of prison and who is not. State prison and mandatory prison sentences are not the magic bullets to address drug abuse and its attendant problems; restoring judicial discretion is the solution."

"These reforms are long overdue," said Rep. Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Queens), the primary sponsor of the bill. "This legislation provides for a more sensible, comprehensive and cost-effective approach for dealing with lower-level drug offenders and addicts. Think of all the resources that have been spent on locking-up nonviolent drug offenders that could have been invested in the education, rehabilitation and job training that can save lives. Treatment programs in New York City have a ten percent recidivism rate for participants one year after completion, compared to 60 to 70% for those not in programs. Treatment works."

Activists who have spent years trying to make the legislature pay heed to calls for Rockefeller law reform -- or outright repeal -- pronounced themselves pleased with the Assembly vote. But while there was agreement that the bill contained significant reforms, some said it did not go far enough.

"With everyone from the Sentencing Commission to the governor talking about reforming the Rockefeller drug laws, it's critical to examine any proposal and make sure it constitutes real reform," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. "To be real, meaningful reform, any proposal must include restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases; expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community based drug treatment; fair and equitable sentencing reforms; and retroactive sentencing relief for people serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller drug laws. The Assembly has included these provisions, and their proposal constitutes real reform."

"New York State is closer to justice today than we were yesterday," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "By passing this bill, our state's Assembly is letting go of 36 years of failure and moving toward meaningful reform of the Rockefeller drug laws."

"The Rockefeller drug laws have failed by every measure -- cost, drug use, public safety," added the group's legislative director, Robert Perry. "With the passage of Jeff Aubrey's bill, the Assembly has acted on Governor Paterson's directive to fundamentally reform the state's failed drug policy. The bill shifts the paradigm, away from mass incarceration and toward a public health model."

But the NYCLU also said that "in certain essential respects, the Assembly proposal does not fully realize the reform principles on which the legislation is based." It listed several examples:

  • The bill leaves in place a sentencing scheme that permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses;
  • The bill disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and
  • The bill creates an unnecessarily burdensome procedure for sealing a criminal record after someone has completed a substance abuse program.

"This is an essential first step, but we encourage Governor Paterson and the state Senate to authorize judicial discretion to divert individuals from prison in all appropriate cases; to expand and improve the quality of alternative to incarceration programs; and to provide long-sought justice to the thousands of families that have been torn apart by the Rockefeller drug laws," Lieberman said.

Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which has been part of the Rockefeller reform movement for years, offered a more radical critique. "It's not just the Rockefeller drug laws -- we need to completely overhaul the criminal justice system, from sentencing to the appointment of judges to judge-shopping by prosecutors to racial profiling to banning stop and frisk searches. People need to focus on the overall criminal justice system, or just as many people will be going to prison as we have now," he told the Chronicle last month.

But right now, the focus is on getting Rockefeller reform legislation to the governor's desk. DPA's Sayegh said there were good signs in the Senate. "The Senate bill introduced by Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Bronx) is the same bill as was introduced in the Assembly," he pointed out. "We're very hopeful about that."

But Sayegh worried about what Gov. Paterson will propose. "The governor has apparently distributed a proposal to legislative leaders that has not been made public," he said. "We hope it is not a cut and paste from the Sentencing Commission, given that its recommendations do not constitute real reform."

Still, Sayegh predicted fast action in Albany. "This is moving along quickly. We think we may see a negotiated Senate bill within a week or two," he said. "Given the fiscal crisis we're facing, these reforms will save the state millions and millions of dollars. The time is right."

If and when substantial repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws is passed, then perhaps people will start asking why and whether drug users and sellers should be arrested in the first place absent harm to others. Drug treatment and drug courts may be an improvement over years in prison, but in a society that treated its citizens as adults, such authoritarian institutions would be reserved for people who have demonstrated their drug use is harming others.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, Vaping, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School