04/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Happy To See My Mug Shot on the Home Page of the NY Times

For most people, seeing their arrest mug shot on the New York Times homepage would be a nightmare. But for me, it was a blessing since it was part of a story that is near and dear to my heart. The reason my photo was on the site is because they featured me in an insightful video on the New York Assembly passing legislation yesterday to overhaul the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The Rock laws represent a misguided and ineffective regime for addressing drug use and addiction -- health issues, not criminal issues. With legislation passed this week by the Assembly, New York may be ready to shift towards a more reasonable--and affordable--approach guided by public health and safety.

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, 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.

Over 4,000 people are serving long prison terms for simple possession alone. Nearly 90 percent of the people incarcerated are black or Latino, though whites use and sell illegal drugs at equal or higher rates.

And as New York reels from the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, Gov. David Paterson and the Legislature are scrambling to close ever-expanding deficits. It costs New Yorkers $45,000 a year to keep someone locked up, while treatment costs a fraction of that.

Does it make sense to spend over $500 million every year on laws we know don't work? These laws did not stop the crack epidemic of the 1980s. They are completely incapable of stemming the accidental drug overdose epidemic hitting New York City and Long Island today. And they have turned the Department of Corrections into the state's largest, most costly and ineffective treatment provider.

The Assembly's bill, A.6085, would finally reform the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws. Sponsored by Corrections Committee Chairman--and drug treatment counselor-- Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens), Speaker Sheldon Silver and a host of others, the bill contains the four key elements that constitute meaningful, real reform: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases, so judges can place appropriate people in treatment; the expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community-based drug treatment throughout the state; fair sentencing reform; and retroactive sentencing relief for eligible people serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Assembly's proposal would not allow people who commit violent to be resentenced.

Arguably, the Assembly could have done even more, such as including full repeal of the second felony offender law. Even so, A.6085 represents a significant step forward in developing a more rational and effective approach to drug use and addiction in our state. The modest reforms of 2004 and 2005 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 addicts into treatment programs. After 2004, more people went to prison under Rockefeller Drug Laws than in previous years.

The need for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws is no longer in debate. The Governor, the Assembly and Senate, and the Sentencing Reform Commission, which included prosecutors, have all called for reforms to the laws. The question is what kind of reforms will we see in New York? The Assembly has answered by proposing meaningful, real reform and advancing a public health and safety approach to drug use and addiction. This is the direction we need to go. Drug addiction shouldn't be a crime--the real crime would be if reform was stymied yet again.

The bill A.6085, introduced last week and is expected to pass this week, includes the following provisions which balance safety and justice:

· Returns discretion to sentencing judges to tailor the penalty to the facts and circumstances of each drug offense.

· Allows a sentence of probation and treatment where appropriate.

· Strengthens in-prison treatment and reentry services.

· Expands the use of alternatives to incarceration, including community-based treatment, where appropriate.

· Allows certain eligible individuals incarcerated for low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing; individuals convicted of violent crimes are not eligible.

· Expands use of drug courts throughout New York.

· Increase penalties for sale of a controlled substance to a child.

· Establishes a new kingpin crime for trafficking through a controlled substance organization.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 to Life who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Gabriel Sayegh is project director for the Drug Policy Alliance