“Few public safety initiatives have failed as badly and for as long as the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
That’s how New York Governor David Paterson described New York State’s drug laws — and he’s absolutely right.
Since the Rockefeller laws were passed over thirty-five years ago by then governor Nelson Rockefeller — establishing harsh mandatory sentences with no judicial discretion for the sale or possession of relatively small amounts of drugs — they have proven to be wasteful, ineffective, unjust and racially biased.
Reformers — including the Correctional Association of New York which I serve as a board member — have been fighting the draconian policy for 25 years. The effort intensified with the Drop the Rockcampaign that began in 1999. There is now a coalition which includes faith groups, allies in the criminal justice field, service providers who run alternatives to incarceration, communities in Harlem, families and individuals directly affected by the laws, the public defender community, labor unions, college and law student groups.
Now it seems the stars have aligned to create an opening for bold reform.
First, the fiscal crisis and consequent state budget gap — New York faces a $15 billion budget deficit— have highlighted the exorbitant costs of imprisoning nonviolent, low-level drug offenders and the need for smarter, more effective alternatives. Political leaders are under pressure to cut costs that don’t involve needed services like housing, education and health care. New York residents and policy makers have also seen how the laws have failed to impact addiction or the amount of drugs available on the streets. Finally, for the first time, three key leaders are all Democrats who have publicly supported major reform: Governor Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.
“The Rockefeller Drug Laws are and always have been a huge catastrophe for this state and absolutely must be reformed….” Speaker Silver recently said. “I am proud to tell you… that this year – 2009 – is the year we will finally enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the drug laws take away the discretion of judges to set sentencing or alternatives to imprisonment. The prosecutor decides what the charge is and upon conviction the judge must adhere to mandatory sentencing. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a first-time nonviolent offender or an addict, nor do character or circumstances enter the equation. Equally absurd — the felony is determined by the weight of the drug in possession at the time of arrest rather than the role a person plays in a drug transaction. Major dealers know not to carry drugs and the system also promotes racial bias.