The dismantling of the Rockefeller Drug Laws is picking up steam. The New York State Assembly held a key hearing on Dec. 8 to press forward with implementation of the reforms, soliciting feedback from courts, treatment providers and community-based programs on their readiness and resource needs to carry out the groundbreaking new law.
The reform, which took effect on Oct. 7, eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for most drug offenses, restored discretion to judges to sentence individuals to probation, drug treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, and allows approximately 1,000 people convicted under the old Rockefeller Drug Laws to apply for resentencing.
At the hearing, lawmakers explored a wide range of issues related to the Rockefeller reform, including: What steps has the court system taken to prepare for and implement the new judicial diversion program, and to ensure that persons who are resentenced have access to community-based reentry programs? Are there sufficient community-based treatment programs available to serve individuals sentenced to treatment or probation, or those released from prison? What are the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals with a history of substance abuse in obtaining public benefits, medical assistance, employment and affordable and stable housing?
"These reforms will allow people to reclaim their dignity as we shift from a punitive criminal justice model to a much needed holistic public health framework," said Shreya Mandal, Mitigation Specialist for the Legal Aid Society. "Now it is time to see this reform through by empowering formerly incarcerated individuals with comprehensive re-entry planning. Reform also calls for revamping outdated modes of drug treatment, both in and out of prison, and for making progressive changes in how we respond to addiction."
Under more limited reforms to the Rockefeller laws signed by Gov. George Pataki in 2004 and 2005 - which authorized resentencing and eliminated life sentences for individuals convicted of certain drug felonies - 584 individuals were released from prison, and just 9 percent of these people returned to jail, far lower than the state's 39 percent overall recidivism rate. These results counter claims made by district attorneys and law enforcement officials that sentencing reform leads to disaster.
"Opponents of reform try to scare the public with claims that the 'sky is falling' every time individuals with substance abuse problems are sent to treatment instead of prison," said Glenn Martin, Vice President of Development and Public Affairs for The Fortune Society. "But by working collaboratively among treatment providers and Alternatives to Incarceration programs, stakeholders can ensure the success of New York's movement toward a public health and safety approach to drug use."
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were intended to target drug kingpins, but instead the laws led to the incarceration of thousands of individuals, mostly people of color, for low-level, nonviolent offenses, many with no prior criminal records. Approximately 12,000 people remain locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, at a cost of roughly $45,000 per year to incarcerate a single person, compared to an average cost of $15,000 per year for drug treatment, which is proven to be 15 times more effective at reducing crime and recidivism.
As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on Rockefeller charges and another 12 fighting the inhumane laws, I am thrilled that the law has been changed, but Rockefeller reform will only be real when those who are behind bars are allowed to come home and those who need help get treatment instead of a jail cell.
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