NYCLU Applauds Significant Step in Dismantling Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws

March 4, 2009 —  In anticipation of the passage of a bill later today, the New York Civil Liberties Union applauded the State Assembly for taking the first significant step in dismantling the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“New York State is closer to justice today than we were yesterday,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “By passing this bill, our state’s Assembly is letting go of 36 years of failure and moving toward meaningful reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison under these laws suffer from substance abuse problems; many others struggle with issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment.

For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have fought to untie the hands of judges and allow addiction to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white.

“The Rockefeller drug laws have failed by every measure – cost, drug use, public safety,”said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. “With the passage of Jeff Aubry’s bill, the Assembly has acted on Governor Paterson’s directive to fundamentally reform the state’s failed drug policy. The bill shifts the paradigm, away from mass incarceration and toward a public health model.”

The Assembly bill (A.6085) embraces judicial discretion in sentencing and allows for rehabilitation and drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The bill:

  • Restores the authority of a judge to divert some people into substance abuse treatment or other community-based programs that best address the person’s needs;
  • Provides for retroactive relief for those sentenced under the old Rockefeller sentencing scheme;
  • Creates re-entry planning services for those in prison, including services that improve access to medical assistance upon release; and
  • Establishes a “crime reduction fund” which will be used to fund prevention and treatment services.

The NYCLU took pains, however, to make clear that while the bill represents an important step in overhauling the drug laws, the bill was nevertheless only one step.

The organization’s analysis found that in certain essential respects, the Assembly proposal does not fully realize the reform principles on which the legislation is based.

The NYCLU noted, for example, that the bill:

  • Leaves in place a sentencing scheme that permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses;
  • Disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and
  • Creates an unnecessarily burdensome procedure for sealing a criminal record after someone has completed a substance abuse program.

The NYCLU also recommended that in order to realize the promise of alternative to incarceration programs, the state must develop evidence-based, best-practice models to ensure good outcomes for the individuals who enter such programs – and for their families and communities.

“This is an essential first step, but we encourage Governor Paterson and the State Senate to authorize judicial discretion to divert individuals from prison in all appropriate cases; to expand and improve the quality of alternative to incarceration programs; and to provide long-sought justice to the thousands of families that have been torn apart by the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” Lieberman said.