“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.

“That guilt is determined by the weight of drugs in possession provides an incentive for law enforcement to focus on particular populations — that’s low-income people of color,” said Robert Gangi, Executive Director of the Correctional Association. “Because if you do drug sweeps or buy-and-bust operations in those communities you’re likely to catch up in your law enforcement net… a lot of people with small amounts of drugs on them. And then you can indict and convict them on drug offenses that will mandate a prison sentence…. To use a crude expression — the system gets more bang for its buck, in the sense of return on the effort.”

The result? Despite the fact that studies show that the majority of people who use and sell drugs in New York State (and the nation) are white, African-Americans and Latinos comprise nearly 90 percent of the drug offenders in New York prisons; whites account for under 10 percent.

Caitlin Dunklee, Coordinator of the Drop the Rock Campaign, said: “In low income communities of color drugs are dealt in the open air — as opposed to where it’s harder to prosecute folks behind closed doors, in places like Wall Street, The Hamptons, etc.”

It costs New York State approximately $1.5 billion to build the jails that hold 12,000 drug offenders, and the annual operating expense to incarcerate them is $525 million. Nearly 50% of these drug offenders are locked up for the three lowest level felonies involving minute drug amounts. (For example, 1,203 people are in jail for possessing ½ gram of cocaine.) All told, repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws would save the state approximately $270 million per year.

Adding to the outrage, study after study shows that drug treatment is more effective than incarceration in reducing drug abuse and recidivism — while also producing tremendous cost savings. It costs $44,000 to keep an inmate in New York state prison for one year. That same individual could be housed in a residential drug treatment program for $17,000-$21,000 per year, or treated for $2,700- $4,500 as an outpatient. But under the Rockefeller Drug Laws a judge doesn’t have the discretion needed to go that route. Nor can a judge sentence a non-addict who succumbs to economic hardship and gets involved in the drug trade to alternative vocational or educational programs. As the New York Times put it in a recent editorial: “The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade.”

Dunklee offered an alternative vision for a more just system. “We are pushing for broad judicial discretion that takes into account a person’s history of addiction as well as the other social and economic causes of becoming involved in the drug trade,” she said.

New York residents can do something to increase the momentum for real reform right now. Sign the petition to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. And on March 10, participate in Drop the Rock Advocacy Day in Albany, meet with legislators, and advocate for a more just system.

“We are intent on keeping the pressure on, and one of our main strategies right now is to make the Advocacy Day as big and as bad as possible,” Gangi said. “This is a day when we can gather hundreds of people in Albany, present our petitions — we currently have over 25,000 signatures and we aim to get 35,000 signatures — and get a lot of press coverage. This is as a day which will enable us and our allies — both in the community and the political process — to focus on the issue and promote it. And it’s timely — there are negotiations as we speak between the three key political leaders…. [for] meaningful reform. And we’re very close to having the three political leaders represented that day… to reinforce their determination on this issue. And that could be a major political advance.”

“It’s also important because we’re not only talking about changing the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” Dunklee said, “but we’re bringing up hundreds of people from New York City’s low-income communities of color to advocate on the issue. And by doing that we are changing the way that policies are made.”

It’s time for a saner, smarter approach to criminal justice. It’s time to Drop the Rock.