New York Assembly to Hold Unprecedented Joint-Committee Hearings on Rockefeller Drug Law Reform on Thursday, May 8

Press Release May 5, 2008
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646)335-5384

New York–Coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, the New York State Assembly will hold unprecedented hearings to explore a public health approach to drug policy in New York. In a first-time development, the joint hearing will be convened by six different Assembly committees — Codes, Corrections, Judiciary, Public Health, Alcohol and Drug Addiction, and Social Services. This type of hearing has never been assembled regarding issues surrounding the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

New York drug policy has been dominated by the Rockefeller Drug Law for 35 years, with disastrous results that have been well documented. While the general consensus is that these failed laws should be scrapped, no effective alternative approach has been seriously considered by the New York State Legislature. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York has been the national leader in racial disparities resulting from disastrous drug policies — over 90% of those incarcerated under the laws are Black and Latino, even though whites use and sell drugs at higher rates.

The joint hearings of the Assembly offer an opportunity for New York to become a national leader in coordinated, sensible, and effective drug policies based in a public health paradigm and guided by science, reason, and compassion. A public health approach focuses on saving lives and increasing community health and safety by developing programs that reduce the death, disease, and suffering associated with drug abuse and addiction.

A public health approach would create a new bottom line in New York. It will focus on saving lives and increasing community health and safety by fostering programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases, offer more overdose prevention programs, and a Good Samaritan policy that provides immunity to those that call 911 in the event of a drug overdose. It also would greatly expand harm reduction programs that have proven effective in reducing death and disease associated with drug use.

Two hearings have been scheduled–Thursday, May 8, in New York City, and Thursday, May 15, in Rochester. At the May 8 hearing in New York City, advocates will rally outside the hearings in support of scrapping the Rockefeller Drug Laws and advancing a public health approach to drug policy. These hearings signal a remarkable shift from the Assembly’s traditional efforts to approach Rockefeller reform from the criminal justice perspective. People formerly incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, family members, treatment providers, criminal justice reform advocates, and religious leaders and elected officials will rally from noon to 2 p.m.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers (kingpins), most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, many of whom have no prior criminal record.

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under the more punitive sentences to apply for shorter terms, and do not increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. Over 13,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 22 percent of the prison population and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

“My son did not benefit from the so-called reforms of 2004,” said Cheri O’Donoghue, whose son, Ashley, was incarcerated for five years on a 7 — 21 year sentence, on a first-time, nonviolent offense. “When do families like ours finally get justice? The Assembly’s mandate is clear–the status quo has failed, and we need a new approach based in public health.”

What: Rally outside Legislative Hearing Calling for a Public Heath Approach to Drug Use and Abuse
When: Thursday, May 8, noon.
Where: 250 Broadway (between Murray Street and Park place)
Who: Cheri O’Donaghue, mother of a former Rockefeller Drug Law prisoner and steering member of FREE!; Terrence Stevens, Executive Director of In Arms Reach and former RDL prisoner; Sen. Eric Schneiderman; Sen. Tom Duane; Tony Papa, Drug Policy Alliance and former RDL prisoner; Bob Gangi, Correctional Association; Bob Perry, NYCLU; Maurice Lacey, Treatment Provider, and others TBA.

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

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