NY Prosecutors, More Concerned about Their Power than the Good of New York, Attempt to Block Reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws

Press Release March 17, 2009
Media Contact

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

Today, a group of New York City prosecutors arrived in Albany to convince lawmakers to abandon attempts to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This comes on the heels of the New York Assembly’s overwhelming passage of A.6085/S.2855 — legislation that would finally enact real reform of the 36 year old laws.

The Assembly bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, and many others, and sponsored by Eric Schneiderman in the Senate, 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/S.2855 is to “reduce drug-related crime by addressing substance abuse that often lies at the core of criminal behavior.”

The most powerful special interest group in support of the laws–New York State Prosecutors–have suggested any reforms to the long-failed laws will cause “chaos.” But beyond this entrenched special interest group, which is working to block reforms, there has been near-universal consensus that the Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed. Governor Paterson called for their overhaul in his state of the state address. The Senate is lead by Democrats who have long railed against the wasteful polices which promote racial disparities and don’t reduce drug dependency. And in early January, a diverse range of groups gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine to explore a public health approach to drug policy, including the Medical Society of New York, the Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Providers of New York, members of the State Senate and Assembly and the New York City Council, and representatives from the Governor’s office.

“New York simply cannot afford these failed laws any longer. 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,” said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The prosecutors say chaos will ensue if the laws are reformed. Really? Why didn’t the Rockefeller Drug Laws stop the crack epidemic of the 1980s? Why aren’t the Rockefeller Drug Laws stopping the drug overdose epidemic in Long Island today? These laws have failed, and the only thing preventing a new direction in drug policy—an approach based in public health and safety–is this special interest group known as prosecutors.”

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 prisons, representing nearly 21 percent of the prison population, and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Nearly 90 percent 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/S.2855, passed by the Assembly and now under consideration by the Senate, includes the following provisions which balance safety and justice:

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

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