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Dumping the Rockefeller Drug Laws for a New Direction in New York

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Co-authored by Gabriel Sayegh

After nearly four decades, it looks like the Rockefeller Drug Laws may finally be on their way out. The New York State Assembly recently passed legislation -- A.6085 -- to significantly reform the failed laws. Now it is up to all of us to make sure that this bill gets to the Governor's desk without being weakened, so he can sign it into law. It is the time to put to bed the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, mandate harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for simple, low-level drug offenses. Under these laws, people convicted of first or second time low-level drug offenses receive long prison terms -- not the treatment or support services they often need. New York spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year locking up people for drug possession, yet spending on community-based drug treatment is pitifully low, and treatment options for people with drug problems are too limited. Incarceration costs $45,000 per year per person; community-based treatment and alternative programming, often $15K or less.

Today, there are approximately 12,000 people in New York prisons under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, more than 90 percent of who are Black and Latino. There is no excuse for this disparity -- whites and people of color use and sell illegal drugs at approximately equal rates.

Why are so many people in prison for drug offenses? Because we continue to treat drug addiction as a criminal issue instead of the public health problem that it is. Nationwide, over 500,000 people are incarcerated on drug offenses, more than any other industrialized nation.

For years, advocates like the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, the Drug Policy Alliance and many others have worked diligently for reforms. The hip-hop community in particular spoke up and spoke loudly at a major rally in 2003, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on New York's government to make reforms, which they did. However, those moderate reforms in 2004 and 2005 were not nearly enough. Advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and leaders across the political spectrum -- including now Gov. David Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, all longtime champions of reform -- agreed that more needed to be done. Even the recent report by the state Sentencing Reform Commission concluded more reform was needed. Yet real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws remains unfinished. Now there is renewed hope.

The Assembly bill is a good starting point for reform, because it does four important things:

1. Restores judicial discretion & Enacts sentencing reform. The Rockefeller Drug Laws are draconian because the sentences are so inhumane. Under current mandatory minimum sentencing practices, judges have no discretion in sentencing. Organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Bar Association, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have all called for an end to mandatory minimums because they constitute unfair practices and do not cut crime.

2. Expands and funds treatment. A famous study by the RAND Corporation found that treatment is 15 times more effective -- and far cheaper -- than incarceration in reducing drug abuse and related crime. In California, voters passed Prop. 36 in 2000, diverting people arrested for first- and second- time simple drug possession into community-based treatment, not prison. We have seen this work in other states, so we know it can work in New York.

3. Applies relief retroactively. Sentencing reforms should apply retroactively to thousands of people convicted of low-level offenses who were not provided relief by the reforms of 2004 and 2005.

4. Focuses on re-entry. The bill ties these reforms together with solid re-entry plan, providing wrap-around services such as drug treatment and job training for people returning to our communities from prison. They need help to become productive, taxpaying citizens instead of being a prison number.

New York has had enough of the Rockefeller Drug Laws -- it's time to get rid of them and enact an approach that more effectively balances public health and safety. The Assembly has started this process, and now, the Senate and Governor have to act by supporting and even improving upon this comprehensive proposal. After nearly 36 years of these failed laws, New York is ready for a new direction.

TAKE ACTION now to let your local and statewide representative know that you support the end of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Catch the film, Lockdown, USA, which documents our fight to end these laws.

Gabriel Sayegh directs the State Organizing and Policy Project of the Drug Policy Alliance, developing drug policy reform campaigns that combine research-driven policy advocacy with community-based organizing strategies.