New York Sentencing Commission Report Ignores Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Press Release October 15, 2007
Media Contact

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

New York City –Today, the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform (NYSCSR) released its preliminary report on New York’s tangled criminal justice system. Recommendations on the Rockefeller Drug Laws, including any meaningful reforms of the Second Felony Offender Act, were noticeably missing from the report – leading advocates to voice their extreme disappointment over the work of the Commission thus far.

The New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform, enacted by Gov. Elliot Spitzer, is charged with reviewing New York’s sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision, and the use of alternatives to incarceration. Overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws was touted as being high on the Commission’s priority list. Despite the Commission’s stated priorities, the preliminary report contains virtually no recommendations on the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Advocates and family members of those impacted by the Rockefeller Drug Laws responded to NYSCSR report by their voicing disappointment over the Commission’s lack of findings.

“The Sentencing Commission has been meeting regularly for many months, we are shocked and dismayed at their inability to put together recommendations that overhaul these draconian drug laws,” said Gabriel Sayegh, director of the State Organizing and Public Policy Project for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The evidence and data supporting reform is widely available. The lack of reform recommendations is unfortunately a political decision.

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 38 percent of the prison population, costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

“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 Naoma Nagahawatte, deputy director of the State Organizing and Policy Project for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Commission knows what needs to be done. They must take the steps necessary to do it.”

Within the Commission, certain members have been strong proponents for Rockefeller overhaul. Advocates applaud the work of those Commissioners, and support the Commission’s overall mandate to address the inconsistent sentencing structure in New York State. Advocates hope that the Commission as a whole will follow through on their commitment to ensure an appropriate and just correctional system for New York State.

“My son did not benefit from the so-called reforms of 2004,” said Cheri O’Donoghue, who’s son, Ashley, is incarcerated for 7 — 21 years on a first-time, nonviolent offense. “When do families like ours finally get justice? The Commission’s mandate is clear–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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