New York Sentencing Commission Releases Report on Rockefeller Drug Laws and Criminal Justice

Press Release February 2, 2009
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646)335-5384 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646)335-2264

The Sentencing Commission, established in 2007 by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, was tasked with reforming New York’s convoluted and complex sentencing system. The Commission’s report of recommendations was released today to Governor Paterson. Advocates were dismayed to see that the report did not include any substantive recommendations for reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, despite previous claims that the laws were a top priority.

“True overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws requires the restoration of judicial discretion in all drug cases, the expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs, reductions in the length of sentences for all drug offenses, and retroactive sentencing relief for all prisoners currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Commission caved to the District Attorney’s Association, which has a vested interest in maintaining this failed criminal justice approach to drug policy and addiction.”

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, and many of them 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. Nearly 14,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 22 percent of the prison population, costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. After the reforms of 2004, there were more people sent to prison under Rockefeller Drug Law offenses than in previous years.

Advocates are not alone in their frustration with the Commission’s lackluster proposals. Earlier today, Speaker Sheldon Silver released a letter and fact sheet outlining his opposition to the Commission’s report. The Speaker notes that the report “ignores” how the failed laws have led to horrific racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offenses in New York–over 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, even though white and people of color use drugs at approximately equal rates. The Speaker goes on to criticize the report for maintaining mandatory minimum sentences and failing to include retroactive sentencing relief for people currently incarcerated. The Speaker issued his first major policy paper two weeks ago, focused on reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Without including key elements of real reform–many of which are outlined by the Speaker in his letter–the report is a taxpayer-funded paperweight,” said Sayegh. “Just two weeks ago, the Governor’s office, the Speaker and members of the Assembly, numerous State Senators, members of the New York City Council and hundreds of doctors, lawyers, advocates, people in recovery, drug treatment specialists, criminal justice experts and more gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine to develop a public health approach to drug policy. Perhaps the Commission doesn’t realize that in addition to the Assembly leading a charge for reform, we have a new President, a new Governor, a new State Senate, and a tidal wave of advocates and community members all calling for a new direction in our drug policies.”

“My son did not benefit from the so-called reforms of 2004,” said Cheri O’Donoghue, who’s son, Ashley, was incarcerated for 7 — 21 years on a first-time, nonviolent offense. “When do families like ours finally get justice? The Commission’s mandate was clear, and they failed to meet it. The status quo has failed, and we need comprehensive reform.”

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

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