Common Sense on Drug Arrests

More than 40 years after New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller demanded draconian prison sentences even for small-time drug users and sellers, common sense—and justice—may be returning to the courtroom.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for the federal judicial system, recently recommended that more-flexible sentencing policies be applied retroactively, that is, to inmates who are already serving time. That could lead to early release next year for as many as 46,000 inmates serving time for drug offenses across the country.

That is a step in the right direction. In other words, it is another step away from the policies that Rockefeller embraced in 1973, which led to the explosive and tragic growth of America’s prison-industrial complex.

New Yorkers have a special obligation to support the rollback of laws that originated in Albany and soon spread to state capitals and even federal courtrooms throughout the 1970s. The now-discredited Rockefeller drug laws, passed by the elected representatives of this state, ruined countless lives and perpetuated injustices. Many of those sent to prison for life for drug offenses were, and are, African-American and Hispanic. The mandatory sentences of the Rockefeller era were the beginning point of today’s mass incarceration of young black and brown men.

Under former Gov. George Pataki, New York began to move away from the worst of the Rockefeller drug laws. Mr. Pataki expended no small amount of political capital in his push for reforms that reduced mandatory minimum sentences and allowed some offenders to apply for re-sentencing under the new rules.

Federal inmates will now get the same chance to seek a more-just sentence retroactively. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, took note of the justice of the Commission’s ruling. “It makes little sense,” he said, “to reform harsh sentencing laws proactively but not retroactively.”

The problem, as Mr. Nadelmann noted (and as Mr. Pataki discovered), is that many politicians are “scared of allowing people out of prison early.” The specter of Willie Horton has not receded from American life and culture.

It’s important to remember, however, that these reforms target non-violent drug offenders—the sort of people who should never have been sent off to prison for life. This is not a matter of being “soft” on crime. Forty years ago, law-enforcement officials and conservatives like William Buckley Jr. opposed the Rockefeller laws as an obvious injustice.

It is beyond time to correct that injustice.