Criminal Justice Reform in New York

Panelists discuss race and reparative justice at DPA's White Faces, Black Lives conference in New York.

In 1973, New York’s legislature became the first to pass mandatory minimums for simple drug possession. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, (named after NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller) mandated extremely harsh prison terms for possession and sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although intended to target “kingpins,” most people incarcerated under the laws were convicted of low-level, first-time offenses.

The laws became the national policy model for the drug war and marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug use and abuse through the criminal justice system instead of through the medical and public health systems.

In 2009, with the Drug Policy Alliance’s help, these harsh sentencing laws were finally reformed. Since then our criminal justice work has focused on building local campaigns to move small towns and cities to create municipal drug strategies to move from criminal justice structures towards public health structures. 

In 2013, Drug Policy Alliance and the New York Academy of Medicine published Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy to lay out what an alternative drug policy approach would be. Since then NYC created an office of drug strategy, of which DPA is a seated member, and Ithaca, NY released a municipal drug strategy in consultation with DPA. 

Ending Mass Criminalization

DPA is expanding the breadth of our work by focusing on mass criminalization, rather than just mass incarceration. Mass criminalization refers to the spread of criminal justice actors, criminal justice sanctions, and harshly punitive administrative sanctions into areas that far exceed what is necessary to maintain genuine public safety.

Our work in New York not only includes the decriminalization of drug use and drug possession, but also addresses the severe collateral consequences people experience for drug-related charges. Punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal justice system, but is also perpetuated by policies denying child custody, voting rights, employment, immigration status, business loans, licensing, student aid, public housing and other public assistance to people with criminal convictions.

Promoting Racial Equity in Policy Making

The Rockefeller Drug Laws led to unprecedented, unwarranted racial disparities in New York’s criminal justice system, and a range of collateral consequences for marginalized communities of color. While New York has made significant progress in reducing criminalization in drug policy, Black and Latino New Yorkers continue to have more interactions with the justice system and receive harsher punishments than their counterparts of other races.

In order to address these racial disparities in New York's criminal justice system, DPA works to push policymakers to:

  • Acknowledge the harm done to communities of color affected by punitive drug policies
  • Atone for the harms caused by failed drug war policies by having those responsible accept their role in perpetuating cycles of punishment in communities of color
  • Act to create reforms that are non-punitive and health-oriented
Criminal Justice Reform