New York State Lawmakers Reach Historic Agreement to Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws

Press Release March 26, 2009
Media Contact

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

ALBANY – Today, New York Governor David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith announced a deal that would, finally, enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The agreement, still being finalized, would restore judicial discretion in most drug cases, expand drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, provide retroactive sentencing relief for people serving low-level offenses, and more effectively utilize criminal justice and public health resources to build safer, healthier communities.

“The deal announced today, if enacted, would finally address some of the most egregious injustices and waste perpetrated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” said Gabriel Sayegh, project director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Governor and Legislature clearly understand that New Yorkers can no longer afford the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Incarceration costs approximately $45,000 per year, while treatment and alternatives to incarceration cost far less and are far more effective at reducing recidivism and restoring the health and well being of our communities. With this agreement, New York takes its first big step towards advancing a public health and safety approach to drug policy in our state.”

“Lives are destroyed by long prison terms for low-level drug offenses, and prison doesn’t address addiction,” said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. “As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on a nonviolent drug offense, I know how important it is for those who have drug problems to get help instead of a prison cell.”

Earlier this month, the Assembly passed more significant reform legislation which started the negotiations for reform. Assembly bill 6085, sponsored by long-time reform champion Assemblyman Jeff Aubry (D-Queens), chairman of the Corrections Committee and Speaker Silver, was even more comprehensive than the deal announced by lawmakers today. Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), chairman of the Codes Committee, introduced similar legislation in the Senate. The Governor, the Senate and the Assembly then worked to finalize a meaningful comprise agreement.

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

Reforms of the laws have been called for by nearly every group in the state, including the Sentencing Commission, District Attorney’s like David Soares, the drug treatment community, public health and criminal justice experts and many more.

Advocates have long held that for any proposal to be meaningful, it 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 agreement announced today appears to include these provisions.

Today’s announcement comes just two months after drug policy 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. At that meeting, public health experts, district attorneys, former and current police and community members met with treatment providers, doctors, formerly incarcerated people and people in recovery to begin outlining more effective drug policies.

The Legislature and Governor now have to finalize the deal before it becomes law. “The announcement is important, but it’s critical they enact this into law,” said Papa. “For 36 years, we’ve used incarceration to address drug addiction and poverty. It’s time for a new approach.”

New York Post Video.

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

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