At the first meeting held by the Drop the Rock Campaign following last November’s elections, the New York-based drug policy reform organization cheered what it saw as an “opening in the wall” for reversing the state’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. For years, Drop the Rock has held rallies, collected petitions and lobbied lawmakers to repeal the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which date to 1973 and are among the harshest drug laws in the country–with no success. But with Democrats now in control of the State Legislature and a sympathetic governor in the Statehouse, activist groups like Drop the Rock find themselves in a new position, faced with an opportunity to finally bring about real reform.
The New York State political landscape has never appeared more conducive to a change in the laws. In November, the Democrats secured a majority in the State Senate for the first time in forty-three years. Governor David Paterson, who urged a “major prison sentencing overhaul” as a state senator in 2004, returned to that theme during his 2009 State of the State address. Paterson called for granting judges the discretion to recommend drug treatment instead of jail and expanding the availability of treatment programs, claiming that “few public safety initiatives have failed as badly and for as long as the Rockefeller drug laws.” State Senator Eric Schneiderman, another outspoken critic and a past sponsor of legislation to reform the Rockefeller laws, says he is “excited” and “very hopeful” that reform will finally happen this year.
Activists also note that New York’s fiscal crisis–the state’s projected budget shortfall for the coming year is close to $14 billion–could provide otherwise hesitant lawmakers with leeway to make politically risky changes to state policy. After all, it is exorbitantly expensive to lock people up. A recent study by the Legal Action Center found that drug law reform coupled with some prison closures could save New York State around $270 million annually.
While nearly everyone involved in efforts to overturn the Rockefeller laws sees opportunity on the horizon, it remains unclear how far-reaching the change will be. Recent reforms have been fairly tepid–the last came in 2004, with the Drug Law Reform Act. That act reduced the mandatory sentence for convicted A-1 offenders from fifteen years to life to eight to twenty years, and doubled the amount of drugs needed for an A-1 conviction. A-1 convictions apply to the most egregious offenses–before the change, the laws applied to anyone caught selling at least two ounces or in possession of four ounces of cocaine or heroin–and had previously carried the same sentencing guidelines as a murder conviction. In 2005 the sentencing guidelines for A-2 convictions were also reduced. Advocates welcomed the changes but insisted they were not nearly enough. State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a longtime ally of the repeal movement, is hopeful for further reforms in 2009 but believes changes to the laws still “won’t be 100 percent. Just a better prescription for where we are going to go.”