After nearly four decades, it looks like the Rockefeller Drug Laws may finally be on their way out. The New York State Assembly recently passed legislation—A.6085 —to significantly reform the failed laws. Now it is up to all of us to make sure that this bill gets to the Governor’s desk without being weakened, so he can sign it into law. It is the time to put to bed the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, mandate harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for simple, low-level drug offenses. Under these laws, people convicted of first or second time low-level drug offenses receive long prison terms—not the treatment or support services they often need. New York spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year locking up people for drug possession, yet spending on community-based drug treatment is pitifully low, and treatment options for people with drug problems are too limited. Incarceration costs $45,000 per year per person; community-based treatment and alternative programming, often $15K or less.
Today, there are approximately 12,000 people in New York prisons under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, more than 90 percent of whom are Black and Latino. There is no excuse for this disparity–whites and people of color use and sell illegal drugs at approximately equal rates.
Why are so many people in prison for drug offenses? Because we continue to treat drug addiction as a criminal issue instead of the public health problem that it is. Nationwide, over 500,000 people are incarcerated on drug offenses, more than any other industrialized nation.
For years, advocates like the Hip Hop Summit Action Network , the Drug Policy Alliance and many others have worked diligently for reforms. The hip-hop community in particular spoke up and spoke loudly at a major rally in 2003, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on New York’s government to make reforms, which they did. However, those moderate reforms in 2004 and 2005 were not nearly enough. Advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and leaders across the political spectrum—including now – Gov. David Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, all longtime champions of reform—agreed that more needed to be done. Even the recent report by the state Sentencing Reform Commission concluded more reform was needed. Yet real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws remains unfinished.
Now there is renewed hope. The Assembly bill is a good starting point for reform, because it does four important things:
1. Restores judicial discretion & Enacts sentencing reform. The Rockefeller Drug Laws are draconian because the sentences are so inhumane. Under current mandatory minimum sentencing practices, judges have no discretion in sentencing. Organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Bar Association, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have all called