Finally: New York Repeals Rockefeller Drug Laws

Most of the news coming out of Albany has been of the unwelcome variety, but let it be noted that the Legislature and Governor David Paterson managed to provide some great news as well. Finally, after years of agitation and argument, the Rockefeller-era drug laws have been relegated to history. This is a momentous change for the better.

The Rockefeller laws were passed in the early 1970s and were named for the man who signed them, Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York from 1959 to 1973. The laws imposed mandatory sentences for a variety of drug offenses, taking discretion out of the hands of sentencing judges. The laws were passed at a time when drug-related crimes were skyrocketing and political leaders were under public pressure to do something drastic.

In the decades since, mandatory sentences have led to overcrowded prisons, huge public expenditures and countless ruined lives. Offenders caught with a small amount of drugs were dispatched to prison for at least a year. Judges did not have the option of ordering defendants to undergo treatment in place of a prison sentence.

As Senator Jim Webb argued recently in an astute analysis of the American prison system in Parade magazine, “We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.” The senator points out that “the United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate…About one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail or on supervised release.” He concludes, “With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different—and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.”

The draconian Rockefeller laws may or may not have played a role in reducing crime—many prosecutors believe they have been a factor. But it has been blindingly clear for some time that mandatory minimum sentences are too inflexible, too blunt, to deal with nonviolent offenders. The laws ought to have been repealed years ago, as Governor David Paterson argued when he was in the State Senate and was one of the leading voices in favor of repeal. New York was one of the first states to impose mandatory sentences, and it is among the last to repeal them.

The state will save money in reduced prison expenses—it costs nearly $50,000 a year to keep a drug offender in prison—although that is hardly the only reason repeal should be welcomed. Judges will have the discretion to send nonviolent offenders to treatment and give them a chance to get clean and rebuild their lives. The offenders, it should be noted, will have to plead guilty in order to be eligible for the treatment option. In other words, going for treatment will not give them a blank slate—their arrest and their guilty plea will be on the record. If they fail to follow treatment guidelines, prison remains an option.

The new drug laws provide funds to expand treatment centers and support drug courts, which have been found to be extremely effective when judges have the flexibility to deal with nonviolent offenders not as hardened criminals, but as drug users in need of intervention.

Governor Paterson’s tenure has been uneven at best over the last few months. But on this issue, he had shown leadership, courage and determination. He and the Legislature are to be congratulated for bringing about a victory for common sense and justice.