New York State Assembly Preparing to Enact Real Reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws

Press Release March 1, 2009
Media Contact

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

This week, the NY State Assembly is poised to pass A.6085–legislation that will, finally, enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws. The bill, sponsored by Aubry, Silver and many more (multiple sponsors), represents a significant step forward in more effective drug policies by taking a public health and safety approach. As listed in the bill’s sponsor memo, the general purpose of A.6085 is to “reduce drug-related crime by addressing substance abuse that often lies at the core of criminal behavior.”

“With everyone from the Sentencing Commission to the Governor talking about reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, it’s critical to examine any proposal and make sure it constitutes real reform,” said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. “To be real, meaningful reform, any proposal must include restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases; expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community based drug treatment; fair and equitable sentencing reforms; and retroactive sentencing relief for people serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Assembly has included these provisions, and their proposal constitutes real reform.”

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. Approximately 12,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 21 percent of the prison population, and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Nearly 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, representing some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.

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 does not increase the power of judges to place people with drug use problems into treatment programs. After the reforms of 2004, there were more people sent to prison under Rockefeller Drug Law offenses than in previous years.

A.6085, introduced last week and expected to pass this week, includes the following provisions which balance safety and justice:

The Assembly’s introduction of the bill comes just weeks after drug policy reform experts and stakeholders convened at the New York Academy of Medicine to develop a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The historic conference was attended by representatives of the Governor’s office; the Speaker and members of the Assembly; leadership from the State Senate; members of the New York City Council; and hundreds of doctors, lawyers, advocates, people in recovery, drug treatment specialists, criminal justice experts and more. (

New York simply cannot afford these failed laws any longer, said Sayegh. Incarceration costs approximately $45,000 per year, while treatment and alternatives to incarceration can cost less than $10,000 and are far more effective at reducing recidivism and restoring the health and well being of our communities. The Assembly, by proposing real reform, is taking the first step towards advancing a public health and safety approach to drug policy in our state. Now the Senate and the Governor need to weigh in. They’ve expressed their support for real reform in the past, and we are hopeful they’ll support real reform now.

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

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