Rockefeller Drug Laws

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Press Release: NYCLU Applauds Significant Step in Dismantling Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws

CONTACT:

Jennifer Carnig, 212.607.3363 / [email protected]

NYCLU Applauds Significant Step in Dismantling Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 4, 2009 – In anticipation of the passage of a bill later today, the New York Civil Liberties Union applauded the State Assembly for taking the first significant step in dismantling the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“New York State is closer to justice today than we were yesterday,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “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.”

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.

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.

“The Rockefeller drug laws have failed by every measure – cost, drug use, public safety,”said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. “With the passage of Jeff Aubry’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.” 

The Assembly bill (A.6085) embraces judicial discretion in sentencing and allows for rehabilitation and drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The bill:

  • Restores the authority of a judge to divert some people into substance abuse treatment or other community-based programs that best address the person’s needs;
  • Provides for retroactive relief for those sentenced under the old Rockefeller sentencing scheme;
  • Creates re-entry planning services for those in prison, including services that improve access to medical assistance upon release; and
  • Establishes a “crime reduction fund” which will be used to fund prevention and treatment services.

The NYCLU took pains, however, to make clear that while the bill represents an important step in overhauling the drug laws, the bill was nevertheless only one step. 

The organization’s analysis found that in certain essential respects, the Assembly proposal does not fully realize the reform principles on which the legislation is based.   

The NYCLU noted, for example, that the bill:

·         Leaves in place a sentencing scheme that permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses;

·         Disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and

·         Creates an unnecessarily burdensome procedure for sealing a criminal record after someone has completed a substance abuse program.

The NYCLU also recommended that in order to realize the promise of alternative to incarceration programs, the state must develop evidence-based, best-practice models to ensure good outcomes for the individuals who enter such programs – and for their families and communities.

“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.

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Location: 
NY
United States

Press Release: NYS Assembly to Pass Rockefeller Reform Legislation this Week

For Immediate Release: March 2, 2009 For More Info: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646) 335-2264 New York State Assembly Preparing to Enact Real Reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws Vote this Week on Legislation that Would Restore Judicial Discretion, Expand Treatment, Improve Public Safety Advocates Applaud Speaker Silver and the Assembly's Commitment to Reforming Drug Laws, Call on Senate and Governor to Support Real Reform This week, the NY State Assembly is poised to pass A.6085-legislation that will, finally, enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws. The bill, sponsored by Aubry, Silver and many more (multiple sponsors), represents a significant step forward in developing more rational, effective approaches to drug policy by taking a public health and safety approach. The general purpose of the bill is to reduce drug-related crime by addressing substance abuse that often lies at the core of criminal behavior. "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." Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers (kingpins), most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record. Approximately 12,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 21 percent of the prison population, and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Nearly 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, representing some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under the more punitive sentences to apply for shorter terms, and does not increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. After the reforms of 2004, there were more people sent to prison under Rockefeller Drug Law offenses than in previous years. A.6085, introduced last week and expected to pass this week, includes the following provisions which balance safety and justice: * Returns discretion to sentencing judges to tailor the penalty to the facts and circumstances of each drug offense. * Allows a sentence of probation and treatment when appropriate. * Strengthens in-prison treatment and reentry services. * Expands the use of alternatives to incarceration, including community-based treatment, when appropriate. * Allows certain eligible individuals incarcerated for low-level drug offenses previous to the 2004/05 Drug Law Reform Act (DLRA) to apply for resentencing-these are people who did not receive relief in previous reforms. Individuals convicted of violent crimes are not eligible. * Expands use of drug courts throughout New York. * Increase penalties for sale of a controlled substance to a child. * Establishes a new kingpin crime for trafficking through a controlled substance organization. The Assembly's introduction of the bill comes just weeks after drug policy reform experts and stakeholders convened at the New York Academy of Medicine to develop a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The historic conference was attended by representatives of the Governor's office; the Speaker and members of the Assembly; leadership from the State Senate; members of the New York City Council; and hundreds of doctors, lawyers, advocates, people in recovery, drug treatment specialists, criminal justice experts and more. (www.newdirectionsnewyork.org) "New Yorkers simply cannot afford these failed laws any longer," said Sayegh. "Incarceration costs approximately $45,000 per year, while treatment and alternatives to incarceration can cost less than $10,000 and are far more effective at reducing recidivism and restoring community health. The Assembly, by proposing real reform, is taking the first step towards advancing a public health and safety approach to drug policy in our state. Now the Senate and the Governor need to weigh in. They've expressed their support for real reform in the past, and we are hopeful they'll support real reform now."
Location: 
NY
United States

Press Release: NYCLU to City Council: Rockefeller Drug Laws Cause Racial Disparities, Huge Taxpayer Burden

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 24, 2009 CONTACT: Jennifer Carnig at 212.607.3363 or [email protected] NYCLU to City Council: Rockefeller Drug Laws Cause Racial Disparities, Huge Taxpayer Burden February 24, 2009 – At a hearing today before the City Council, the New York Civil Liberties Union presented testimony illustrating the stark racial disparities and enormous financial burden generated by the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York City. Socheatta Meng, the NYCLU’s legislative counsel, testified before the Council’s Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services. “By mandating harsh prison sentences based primarily upon the amount of drugs involved, this state’s drug-sentencing scheme has proven itself to be draconian, irrational, unfair and racially discriminatory,” Meng said. The NYCLU called on the City Council to urge New York State’s political leaders to significantly reform the drug sentencing laws. “This is a new political moment,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who did not testify. “Governor Paterson, as well as key legislative leaders in Albany, have publicly pledged their commitment to reform. A fiscal crisis requires strict cost-cutting. The time is ripe for us to demand real changes to our state’s drug sentencing laws.” Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record. Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under harsh sentences the ability to apply for shorter terms, and restrict the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs.
Location: 
NY
United States

Drop the Rock's Advocacy Day

Sign up today for Drop the Rock's Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 10th in Albany! On this day, hundreds of Drop the Rock coalition members from throughout the city and state will unite in Albany and speak out for repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Drop the Rock will arrange for bus transportation from at least three locations in New York City: Union Square, Harlem, and downtown Brooklyn. * To sign up, please contact Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator, at 212-254-5700 x 339 or [email protected]. * If your organization would like to have its members participate in Advocacy Day, please fill out the attached Organization Bus Form. * If you are interested in attending Advocacy Day, and need a letter requesting permission for your P.O., please contact Caitlin and we will be happy to send a letter on your behalf. SPREAD THE WORD! * Help us bring hundreds of New Yorkers to Albany. Please forward this email to your networks, and feel free to make copies of the attached flyer and pass them out in your community, school, and place of work. TRAINING * We are offering an educational training to prepare participants for Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 3rd at 6PM at the Correctional Association. * We are also able to come to your organization/group to conduct a training for interested participants. If you would like an onsite training, please contact Caitlin Dunklee at 212-254-5700 x339 or [email protected]. FUNDRAISING * We need help defraying the cost of the buses. The cost of renting buses is our largest expense in making Advocacy Day happen, and each seat comes to about $20. We ask that you help us make this day possible, by paying $20 for your seat, or raising money to pay for your seat on the bus. Please note that no one will be turned away for lack of money. * If your organization is able to fill a bus of 50 seats with participants, please contact Caitlin as soon as possible. Please also ask your organization if they will sponsor the cost of a bus ($1100) or help raise money to enable your group to travel to Albany with us. We will also do our best to help subsidize buses. * If you or your group would like to make a donation for buses, please have checks made out to "The Correctional Association of NY" and mailed to the address listed below. Please make sure to note on the check that the donation is for "DTR Buses". Now is a critical time in the movement to reform New York's incarceration policies. Please sign up today to join Drop the Rock as we urge New York's policymakers to enact repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws this year. Please contact Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator, at 212-254-5700 x 339 or [email protected] for more information. Drop the Rock!
Date: 
Tue, 03/10/2009 - 12:01am - 11:59pm
Location: 
Albany, NY
United States

Drop the Rock's Advocacy Day Sign Up

Dear friend of Drop the Rock, Sign up today for Drop the Rock's Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 10th in Albany! On this day, hundreds of Drop the Rock coalition members from throughout the city and state will unite in Albany and speak out for repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Drop the Rock will arrange for bus transportation from at least three locations in New York City: Union Square, Harlem, and downtown Brooklyn. * To sign up, please print and fill out the attached Participant Sign-Up Form and mail it to the Correctional Association of NY or fax it to 212-473-2807. * If your organization would like to have its members participate in Advocacy Day, please fill out the attached Organization Bus Form. * If you are interested in attending Advocacy Day, and need a letter requesting permission for your P.O., please contact Caitlin and we will be happy to send a letter on your behalf. SPREAD THE WORD! * Help us bring hundreds of New Yorkers to Albany. Please forward this email to your networks, and feel free to make copies of the attached flyer and pass them out in your community, school, and place of work. TRAINING * We are offering an educational training to prepare participants for Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 3rd at 6PM at the Correctional Association. * We are also able to come to your organization/group to conduct a training for interested participants. If you would like an onsite training, please contact Caitlin Dunklee at 212-254-5700 x339 or [email protected] . FUNDRAISING * We need help defraying the cost of the buses. The cost of renting buses is our largest expense in making Advocacy Day happen, and each seat comes to about $20. We ask that you help us make this day possible, by paying $20 for your seat, or raising money to pay for your seat on the bus. Please note that no one will be turned away for lack of money. * If your organization is able to fill a bus of 50 seats with participants, please contact Caitlin as soon as possible. Please also ask your organization if they will sponsor the cost of a bus ($1100) or help raise money to enable your group to travel to Albany with us. We will also do our best to help subsidize buses. * If you or your group would like to make a donation for buses, please have checks made out to "The Correctional Association of NY" and mailed to the address listed below. Please make sure to note on the check that the donation is for "DTR Buses". Now is a critical time in the movement to reform New York's incarceration policies. Please sign up today to join Drop the Rock as we urge New York's policymakers to enact repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws this year. Please contact Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator, at 212-254-5700 x 339 or [email protected] , for more information. Drop the Rock!
Location: 
NY
United States

Feature: Is This the Year New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws Will Be Repealed?

For more than 35 years, New York state has had the dubious distinction of having some of the country's worst drug laws, the Rockefeller drug laws passed in 1973. While pressure has mounted in the past decade to repeal those draconian laws, the reforms made to them in 2004 and 2005 have proven disappointing. But now, in what could be a perfect storm for reform, all the pieces for doing away with the Rockefeller drug laws appear to be falling into place.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/fairness4.jpg
June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
New York is now governed by an African American, David Paterson, who was arrested in an act of civil disobedience against the Rockefeller drug laws and who has vowed to reform them. The Democratic leader of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is on board for serious reforms. And for the first time in years, Democrats also control the state Senate. Add to that mix the budgetary crisis in which the state finds itself, and it would appear that this is the year reform or repeal could actually happen.

But it hasn't happened yet -- no bills have even been filed -- and there is opposition to real reform, mostly from district attorneys, representatives whose upstate districts depend on prisons as a jobs program, and the law enforcement establishment. Those folks may latch onto pseudo-reforms as a means of blocking real reform.

Their handbook could be the State Sentencing Commission report issued this week. That report, commissioned by Gov. Paterson last year, calls for marginal reforms in sentencing and parole, as well as limited judicial discretion, but leaves too much power in the hands of prosecutors, said reform advocates.

"The Sentencing Commission proposal was positive in that it would return some judicial discretion in limited cases," said Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Rockefeller repeal coalition Drop the Rock. "But we hope and will press for more sweeping and meaningful reform of the Rockefeller laws. This report was the product of a commission composed of many prosecutors and corrections people, and it does not go far enough."

"I can't believe at this particular moment that they would put this out," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New York state office. "Not only does it not include real reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but it takes a step backward," Sayegh continued. "The commission acted as though the political climate we're in is not happening. It's like they drafted this thing from a cave."

DPA wants judicial discretion and treatment programs, which are included in the Sentencing Commission report, Sayegh said. "The problem is that when you dig into the details of the recommendations, what they are actually saying is that their version of judicial discretion, expanding treatment, and expanding diversion opportunities are all crafted out of the prosecutorial perspective. Prosecutors would maintain their leading roles and their diversion criteria would eliminate half the people from even being considering for it. That's the substance of our objections to the report," Sayegh said.

While Sayegh criticized Gov. Paterson for allowing the commission to "continue with its bumbling," he also took heart from Paterson's non-response to the report's release. "Paterson was going to hold a public event around the release, but that got changed to a press conference, and then even that got cancelled," he noted. "We see that as a good sign, an indication that he will not lend his backing to this report."

Instead, Sayegh said, a much better starting point would be the report issued two weeks ago by Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, Breaking New York's Addiction to Prison: Reforming New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws. In that report, Silver laid out the "principles" of reform:

  • Ilegal drugs should remain illegal. Adults who sell drugs to children, individuals who use guns in drug deals, and drug kingpins deserve harsh punishment.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders must go. Mandating that judges sentence drug users and very low level street sellers to state prison has not impacted crime or reduced addiction but, rather, has led to a massive increase in New York's prison population with a disproportionate number of Latinos and African-Americans being incarcerated.
  • Real judicial discretion means an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences for Class B felony drug offenses and second time, nonviolent drug offenders and the placing of an equal emphasis on alternatives to incarceration and treatment. Except for the most serious crimes, judges in New York already have the discretion to fashion appropriate sentences for criminal acts. Judges should have the ability to make an informed decision whether circumstances warrant imposing a state prison sentence in drug crimes just as they do in cases of many assault, larceny, property damage and any number of other crimes.
  • District Attorneys should continue to play a key role in the process, but they should not be able to veto a judge's discretion. Indeed, to the extent there are district attorney-sponsored initiatives, such as Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) programs that have proven success rates with the limited populations they serve, judges will have the discretion to continue them.
  • Existing maximum determinate sentences for first and second class B level felony and below offenders should be maintained so that if a judge decided circumstances warrant, those who commit the crime will do serious time.

Partial reforms like those achieved in 2004 and 2005 are not going to cut it, said Caitlan Dunklee. "The reforms in 2004 and 2005 failed across the board... the only positive thing about them was that a few hundred people got to go home to their families, but they failed to address the underlying inequities of the Rockefeller drug laws. Specifically, they failed to return any discretion to judges, perpetuating the one size fits all justice that has led to huge levels of incarceration in New York."

The 2004 and 2005 reforms can be judged by their fruits. According to a Drop the Rock 2008 fact sheet, 5,657 people were sent to prison in 2004 for nonviolent drug offenses. That number increased to 5,835 in 2005, 6,039 in 2006, and 6,148 in 2007. About 40% of drug offenders behind bars in New York, some 5,300 people, are doing time simply for drug possession. And more than half of all drug offenders behind bars are doing time for the lowest level drug felonies, which involve only tiny amount of drugs. For example, it takes only a half-gram of cocaine to be charged with a Class D possession felony. More than 1,200 people are currently locked up for that offense.

So, is 2009 the year that real reform (or outright repeal) of the Rockefeller drug laws will happen? DPA thinks so, and held a conference two weeks ago to help make it happen. New Directions for New York: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy brought together numerous drug policy stakeholders in an effort to break the grasp of the criminal justice template on drug policy.

"This was the first time in state history where we had stakeholders ranging from the Medical Society of New York to needle exchange providers to people who actively use injection drugs and do outreach to reduce HIV to academics, prosecutors, and elected officials," said Sayegh. Although New York has good drug policy programs -- harm reduction offices, overdose prevention strategies in place -- the overall discussion is still framed too much by the criminal justice perspective, Sayegh said.

"There is an apparatus in place to lead the charge for more progressive drug policies, but the discussion is framed by the Rockefeller laws," he said. "At this conference, stakeholders who are focused on the Rockefeller laws met with groups who focus on treatment, harm reduction, and medical research. We used the four-pillars approach pioneered by Vancouver, which for many people was a new concept. This allowed them to look at drug policy and reform from a new conceptual perspective, and that's part of what will bring about change."

Sayegh is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for reform this year. "In the past, we hadn't been able to move forward because the prosecutors controlled the language and logic of the debate," he noted. "But now, we can provide the legislature with new language and a new framework, the logic of public health, not criminal justice. This will make the legislature much more willing to move on reform proposals. Who doesn't like public health?"

"I'm very optimistic," said Drop the Rock's Dunklee. "I think we'll see a progressive piece of legislation get passed this year that will include meaningful restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases. Hopefully, it will also include an expansion of funding for alternative to incarceration programs like job training and drug treatment."

Not everyone was so sanguine. "I'm optimistic that something will happen, but I don't think its going to be as profound as everyone would like," said Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which has been part of the Rockefeller repeal effort for years. "That's because there is no street movement anymore, not a lot of grassroots pressure.

While mobilizations in 2004 and 2005 put tens of thousands of people on the street calling for reform, the minor reforms achieved then took the steam out of the mass movement, Credico argued. "Some people thought incremental change would work then," he said, "but we said it's better to get no loaf than half a loaf. That way, the pressure would remain and build. But we got half a loaf, and four years later, all these guys are still in jail and all the air has gone out of the movement."

"And 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."

Drop the Rock's Dunklee begged to differ with Credico over the state of the mass movement for reform. "Drop the Rock is the statewide campaign for repeal, and we haven't gone away," she said. "There is a movement. The 25,000 signatures we've gathered on our petition for repeal is a sign of that. Last year, we took more than 300 people up to Albany, and we will do it again this year."

Still, Dunklee conceded, the partial reforms of 2004 and 2005 did take a lot of air out of the movement. "The media spun that like they were real reforms, and that did weaken the movement," she said. "But in terms of movement building, we still find it easy to organize around this issue because people are so pissed off. I think there is still a lot of energy there."

That energy will be needed in the coming months. While New York's budget mess will occupy legislators for the next few weeks, they will eventually turn to the Rockefeller law reforms. No bills have been filed yet, but they are expected shortly. And hearings are set for May. This year's battle to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws is just getting underway.

Press Release: NY Sentencing Commission Releases Report to Governor on Rockefeller Drug Laws and Criminal Justice

For Immediate Release: February 3, 2009 For More Info: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646) 335-2264 New York Sentencing Commission Releases Report on Rockefeller Drug Laws and Criminal Justice Commission Caves to Prosecutors, Issuing Report That Fails to Address Real Reforms to Draconian Laws, Does Not Restore Judicial Discretion, Maintains Failed Criminal Justice Approach to Drug Policy Advocates Applaud Speaker Silver and the Assembly for Slamming Report and Reaffirming Commitment to Reforming Drug Laws by Advancing a Public Health Approach The Sentencing Commission, established in 2007 by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, was tasked with reforming New York's convoluted and complex sentencing system. The Commission's report of recommendations was released today to Governor Paterson. Advocates were dismayed to see that the report did not include any substantive recommendations for reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, despite previous claims that the laws were a top priority. "True overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws requires the restoration of judicial discretion in all drug cases, the expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs, reductions in the length of sentences for all drug offenses, and retroactive sentencing relief for all prisoners currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Commission caved to the District Attorney's Association, which has a vested interest in maintaining this failed criminal justice approach to drug policy and addiction." Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers (kingpins), most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record. Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under the more punitive sentences to apply for shorter terms, and do not increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. Nearly 14,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 22 percent of the prison population, costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. After the reforms of 2004, there were more people sent to prison under Rockefeller Drug Law offenses than in previous years. Advocates are not alone in their frustration with the Commission's lackluster proposals. Earlier today, Speaker Sheldon Silver released a letter and fact sheet outlining his opposition to the Commission's report. The Speaker notes that the report "ignores" how the failed laws have led to horrific racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offenses in New York-over 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, even though white and people of color use drugs at approximately equal rates. The Speaker goes on to criticize the report for maintaining mandatory minimum sentences and failing to include retroactive sentencing relief for people currently incarcerated. The Speaker issued his first major policy paper two weeks ago, focused on reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws (http://assembly.state.ny.us/ssspolicy/Rockefeller.pdf). "Without including key elements of real reform-many of which are outlined by the Speaker in his letter-the report is a taxpayer-funded paperweight," said Sayegh. "Just two weeks ago, the Governor's office, the Speaker and members of the Assembly, numerous State Senators, members of the New York City Council and hundreds of doctors, lawyers, advocates, people in recovery, drug treatment specialists, criminal justice experts and more gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine to develop a public health approach to drug policy (www.newdirectionsnewyork.org). Perhaps the Commission doesn't realize that in addition to the Assembly leading a charge for reform, we have a new President, a new Governor, a new State Senate, and a tidal wave of advocates and community members all calling for a new direction in our drug policies." "My son did not benefit from the so-called reforms of 2004," said Cheri O'Donoghue, who's son, Ashley, was incarcerated for 7 - 21 years on a first-time, nonviolent offense. "When do families like ours finally get justice? The Commission's mandate was clear, and they failed to meet it. The status quo has failed, and we need comprehensive reform."
Location: 
NY
United States

Feature: Prisons Under Pressure -- Corrections Budgets in the Age of Austerity

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/douglasaz.jpg
Arizona State Prison Complex at Douglas
If there are any silver linings in the current economic, fiscal, and budgetary disaster that afflicts the US, one of them could be that the budget crunch at statehouses around the country means that even formerly sacrosanct programs are on the chopping block. With drug offenders filling approximately 20-25% of prison cells in any given state, prison budgets are now under intense scrutiny, creating opportunities to advance sentencing, prison, and drug law reform in one fell swoop.

Nationwide, corrections spending ranks fourth in eating up state budget dollars, trailing only health care, education, and transportation. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, five states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont -- spend more on prisons they than do on schools.

The US currently spends about $68 billion a year on corrections, mostly at the state level. Even at a time when people are talking about trillion dollar bail-outs, that's a lot of money. And with states from California to the Carolinas facing severe budget squeezes, even "law and order" legislators and executive branch officials are eyeing their expensive state prison systems in an increasingly desperate search to cut costs.

"If you look at the amount of money spent on corrections in the states, it's an enormous amount," said Lawanda Johnson of the Justice Policy Institute. "If they could reduce prison spending, that would definitely have an impact on their state budgets. Now, a few states are starting to look at their jail and prison populations," she said.

Among them:

Alabama: The state Department of Corrections is facing a 20% budget cut in 2009. Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen is telling legislators he will try to "dampen down" the number of new inmates by working on sentencing reform, community corrections, new pardon and parole rules, and a supervised reentry program. The number of Alabama prisoners jumped from nearly 28,000 in March 2006 to more than 30,000 in December 2008, an increase Allen said was caused in part because the legislature had created 67 new felony crimes since 2001.

California: With a prison population of more than 170,000 and the state facing budget deficits of gargantuan proportions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has suggested eliminating parole time for all non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders. His plan would cut the parole population by 65,000 people, more than half the 123,000 currently on parole. It would also reduce by tens of thousands the number of people behind bars in the Golden State by increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation. That move could cut the prison population by 15,000 by June 2010. Schwarzenegger's proposal is opposed by -- you guessed it -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for which mass imprisonment is a job security issue.

Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has proposed extensive cuts in the state corrections system, including closing two state prisons, delay the construction or expansion of two other prisons, and selling a department-owned 1,000-acre ranch. Those cuts would eliminate at least 71 jobs and save $13.6 million in the coming fiscal year.

Kentucky: Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and state legislators last year granted early release to some 1,800 prisoners, including some violent offenders, in a bid to take a bite out of the state's $1 billion budget deficit. Although Beshear and the legislature have protected the Corrections Department from budget cuts afflicting nearly all other state agencies and programs, the state's dire financial straits are making passage of a treatment-not-jail bill for drug offenders more likely this year. That could save the state $1.47 million.

Michigan: Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) will propose keeping prison spending near the $2 billion mark in 2010, 57% higher than a decade ago, but legislators are about to chew on proposals for reform from the Council of State Governments Justice Center to cut the number of state prison inmates by 5,000. That would save about $262 million by 2015, far short of the $500 million annual savings now being called for by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, among others. The Justice Center proposals include cutting the average time above the minimum sentences inmates serve from 27% to 20%. Some 12,000 inmates have already served more than their minimum sentences. Deputy Corrections Director Dennis Schrantz said those proposals were only the beginning, noting that the state had closed nine prisons since 2003 and will close three more this year.

Mississippi: Faced with an emergency $6.5 million (2%) budget cut for the current fiscal year, the state Department of Corrections is moving to reduce the number of inmates in county and regional jails and private prisons. The state pays counties $20 per inmate per day to house them and pays private prison companies at least $31.70 per inmate per day. The state will remove 300 inmates from county jails and 50 from private prisons. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also has sent a list of 2,900 nonviolent inmates to the parole board for possible early release. The department may also grant early release to prisoners with severe medical problems, allowing the state to cut costs by not having to provide medical care for them.

New York: With a $15 billion budget deficit and a Department of Correctional Services eating up $2.5 billion a year -- more than any other state agency -- Gov. David Paterson (D) is seeking to release 1,600 offenders early and reform or repeal the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The prison budget has continued to increase despite a whopping 35% drop in crime in the last decade and a prison population at the lowest levels since the 1980s. Now Correctional Services Director Brian Fischer wants to close prison camps and correctional annexes sitting empty with a thousand beds, saving the state $100 million and cutting the 31,000 corrections department employees by about 1,400 through attrition. It's a start.

South Carolina: After running in the red for the last two years, the state's prison director, Jon Ozmint, told legislators he needed $36 million for the current fiscal year, leaving the solons with three choices: cut spending for health, education, or other services; finance corrections through the reserve, or close prisons. Legislators last year rejected Ozmint's suggestion that they save money by releasing prisoners early and closing prisons. This year, Ozmint is suggesting that the state reduce the requirement that serious felons serve 85% of their sentence to 70%. The prison crisis in South Carolina has prompted the normally pro-prison Charleston Post & Courier to call for "alternative sentencing that could keep nonviolent offenders out of prison" and "revising mandatory minimum sentences."

Virginia: Telling legislators "we want to lock up people we're afraid of and not ones we're mad at," Virginia corrections director Gene Johnson said this week Gov. Tim Kaine (D) wants to release some nonviolent offenders 90 days early to save the state $5 million a year. Nearly 1,200 inmates would qualify for early release, he said. Virginia has already closed five prisons employing 702 people, and may resort to limited lay-offs, Johnson told legislators.

This is by no means a list of all the states grappling with prison spending in the current crisis. Correctional costs are on the agenda at statehouses across the country, but as the list above suggests, the economic squeeze is providing openings for reform.

"In the handful of states that have already opened legislative sessions this year, the corrections budget is frequently raised in budget conversations," said Ryan King, an analyst for The Sentencing Project. "A number of governors have raised the issue. It will definitely be on the table. With the recession really taking hold this year, it will be a major, major issue," he said.

"With each passing year, there is a little greater acknowledgement that we are in a position where states are spending far too much money to incarcerate and can't build their way out of it, but the prison population is still increasing each year," said King. "If we want to talk about a sustainable reduction in the prison population, we need to revisit who is going and for how long, as well as a critical evaluation of sentencing laws, repealing mandatory minimums, and expanding parole eligibility. Those are the big steps that need to be taken."

There is still resistance to reform, King said, but things are changing. "There is now much broader consideration of amending parole and probation policies, along with diversion of drug offenders," he said. "Those are probably the two most widely achieved reforms in the last few years. We will probably see more of that, but if we're going to move this from diverting a few thousand people to really addressing the 1.5 million in prison, we are going to have to start asking whether people belong in prison for decades, whether life without parole is really necessary. The real engines of growth for the prison population are admissions and sentence lengths, and a lot of policymakers are still uncomfortable having that conversation."

After decades of seemingly endless sentence increases and prison-building, perhaps the wheel is beginning to turn. Politicians immune to "bleeding heart" pleas for humanity are not immune to pocket-book issues. But while change is starting to come, the US remains a long way from losing its crown as the world's leading jailer.

Drop the Rock Coalition Meeting

Please join us for the next Drop the Rock General Coalition meeting at the Correctional Association of New York’s office in Harlem. Dinner and refreshments will be served. For more information, see http://www.droptherock.org/ or contact Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator, at 212-254-5700 x 339 or [email protected] with any questions.
Date: 
Tue, 10/14/2008 - 6:00pm
Location: 
2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., Suite 200
New York, NY
United States

Drop-the-Rock Empowerment Day: Statewide Success

[Courtesy of Drop the Rock] Dear Friend of Drop the Rock, On Saturday, Drop the Rock took to the streets to build political leverage in twenty communities that are negatively affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. With over 150 volunteers statewide, we exceeded our own expectations on Empowerment Day, gathering approximately 5,000 signatures calling for the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and registering over 400 new voters. In addition to the stories on various news channels and radio stations, Drop the Rock Empowerment Day was covered in the New York Times and Albany Times Union. Both articles are below. On behalf of the Correctional Association of New York, I would like to thank all of you for working tirelessly to organize Empowerment Day. Whether you were a first time volunteer or a long-time activist, a neighborhood participant or captain, we thank you for picking up a clipboard on Saturday, and pitching in to support an event which touched thousands of New Yorkers. Empowerment Day will bolster our coalition, and build the momentum we need to pressure Governor David Paterson and other state policymakers to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009. Please mark your calendars and join us for the next Drop the Rock Coalition meeting on Tuesday, October 14th at 6PM at the Correctional Association of NY located at 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., Suite 200. And bring a member of your neighborhood's team! Please contact Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator, at 212-254-5700 x 339 or [email protected] with any questions. Drop the Rock! Caitlin Dunklee Drop the Rock Coordinator news link: http://www.timesunion.com/TUNews/author/AuthorPage.aspx?AuthorNum=132
Location: 
NY
United States

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