As Momentum Builds for Rockefeller Drug Law Reform, NY Assembly Passes Bill to Ease Harsh Sentences, Restore Judicial Discretion, Expand Drug Treatment

Press Release June 1, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961

(Mon. June 2, 2003 — Albany, NY) — The New York State Assembly passed legislation today that would dramatically reform the state’s controversial Rockefeller drug laws. The Drug Policy Alliance applauds this new bill and hopes it will serve as a bridge between Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and activists calling for total repeal of the laws.

“An historic and diverse coalition of concerned citizens agrees that these laws are so destructive and wasteful that they should be thrown out entirely,” said Deborah Small, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s great for the State Assembly to pass this bill, which is a compromise between the Governor, the Senate and the family and community advocates. If the elected leaders want to take the next step towards resolving this issue and restoring justice, they should meet right away and agree to enact this important piece of legislation. It is our best hope.”

The Assembly bill comes at a time when momentum is building amongst New Yorkers who want to end the Rockefeller drug laws as we know them. On Wednesday, June 4, a rally for the repeal of these laws will take place at City Hall with appearances by Russell Simmons, Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z, Nas, Beastie Boys and Erykah Badu, among many others. Governor Pataki has pledged reform, but has hedged on upsetting the politically influential association of state prosecutors who oppose increased sentencing discretion for judges because it would diminishes their power to determine the outcome of drug cases. Pataki has been criticized for so far not putting out any proposals that would significantly restore the balance between judges and prosecutors. The Assembly bill, according to the Alliance, is a compromise between these two extremes, and offers an opportunity for real progress.

The Assembly drug law reform bill includes many of the points identified by proponents for change in New York’s drug sentencing statutes:

Governor George Pataki, State Senator Majority Leader Joe Bruno and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have been pledging for years, but have repeatedly failed to agree on a reasonable plan, to reform the controversial drug laws. Enacted in 1973 by then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the laws impose severe sentences of up to 15 years to life on low level drug offenders.

Critics call New York’s harsh drug sentencing laws ineffective, racially biased and wasteful because they ensnare the lowest level offenders who often suffer from drug addiction. Community-based treatment would cost less and be much more effective in terms of rehabilitation, says Small. Ninety-four percent of those sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws are black or Latino, despite equal rates of drug use across races.

The Assembly bill is estimated to save New York taxpayers $164 million dollars each year by diverting nonviolent drug offenders into community-based drug treatment services instead of prison, according to a recent study by the Legal Action Center.

“New York State is facing a desperate budget situation where our schools, firehouses and basic public services are being gutted, meanwhile there is a massive public outcry for drug law reform measures that save millions and fulfill the promises of the political leaders,” said Small. “If the Governor, State Assembly and Senate come together to agree on a plan, real reform can happen. Then and only then will we know that they are sincere on this issue.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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