Rockefeller Reform Bill Passes State Legislature and Heads to Governor Pataki

Press Release August 18, 2005
Media Contact

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

ALBANY – Building on the minor reform of the Rockefeller drug laws in December, 2004, the state legislature passed a new bill (S5880/A8980) that would allow 500 additional people to apply for resentencing, and sent it to Governor Pataki’s desk for signature. Governor Pataki has long campaigned on this issue, and signing this bill would be an opportunity to continue to chip away at the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. “The Governor has talked a lot about Rockefeller reform, and now we expect him to walk the talk and sign this bill immediately,” said Gabriel Sayegh, Policy Analyst at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Last year, in response to public pressure (80% of New Yorkers support Rockefeller reform) New York State lawmakers finally recognized that the harsh sentences imposed under the Rockefeller Drug Laws were unfair and ill-suited to their stated purpose of preventing the flow of addictive drugs into our communities. The state legislature made its first small step in reform, decreasing the length of prison sentences (and eliminating most life sentences) for one category of offenses, the so-called A-Is, which had an impact on a small fraction of the thousands of people incarcerated under New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws. When the Senate passed the Drug Law Reform Act, it was Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick) who said, “This is not enough… We need to do more” to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

This year, in the closing hours of this legislative session, the state legislature took another small step toward Rockefeller Reform and passed a bill that would allow about 500 nonviolent drug offenders convicted of A-II level drug felonies to apply to be resentenced under last year’s Drug Law Reform Act. Under current law, A-II drug felons, who are convicted of less serious offenses than A-I’s, are not permitted to apply for resentencing, creating a situation where some A-I’s.

However, while advocates push for this reform, they note that its impact must be kept in perspective, as it will not help the majority of people imprisoned under the Rockefeller drug laws. As Cheri O’Donoghue, mother of Ashley, who is incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, states, “This is a good next step, but it still doesn’t help my son, or the thousands of people like him. There are over 16,000 Rockefeller Drug Law prisoners, which affects tens of thousands of families.” Ashley was charged with a B offense (the most common Rockefeller charge, which has yet to receive any reform consideration) and received a sentence of 7-21 years for a first time non-violent offense. Many of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws are non-violent offenders incarcerated for mere drug possession. A staggering 93% of them are people of color. Under these laws, drug offenders face the same penalties as those convicted of murder, and harsher penalties than rapists. As long as families continue to be ripped apart, and millions of dollars are wasted, families and advocates will continue to demand Real Reform of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Members of the Real Reform New York Coalition (, which includes survivors of the Rockefeller drug laws, families of incarcerated people, advocates and experts, define Real Reform as:

  1. Reducing sentences to levels proportionate to those for other non-violent crimes, and to bring New York into line with national standards.
  2. Restoring judicial discretion so judges can fashion just sentences based on consideration of the particular case, and to sentence low-level offenders to community-based treatment.
  3. Delivering retroactive sentencing relief to currently incarcerated Rockefeller inmates serving unjustly long sentences.
  4. Expanding drug treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration for diverted low-level offenders.

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

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