NYCLU Announces Findings about Statewide Impact of Rockefeller Drug Laws

March 11, 2009 —  The New York Civil Liberties today released a detailed report illustrating the disastrous effects the Rockefeller Drug Laws have inflicted on New York State. The report analyzes the drug laws’ economic and social impact on the entire state, and its largest cities: Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse.

The report – The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Unjust, Irrational, Ineffective – presents overwhelming evidence that New York’s mandatory minimum drug-sentencing scheme has failed to improve public safety or deter drug use. It documents the grave harm the drug laws cause to low-income communities of color, and it calls on lawmakers to adopt a public health approach to addressing substance abuse.

Click here to read full report

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed by every measure. They tear apart families, waste tax dollars and create shocking racial disparities,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Yet, after 36 years of failure, our state continues locking up the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Justice and common sense require comprehensive reform.”

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.

The mass incarceration of drug offenders rips parents away from children. As of 2002, an estimated 11,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses, including 1,000 women, were parents of young children. Close to 25,000 children in New York State had parents in prison convicted of nonviolent drug charges. Some 50 percent of mothers and fathers in prison for drug convictions did not receive visits from their children.

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state’s drug sentencing scheme remains intact. These laws deny judges the authority to place people suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness into treatment programs.

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 Latinos comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though government research shows that most people using illegal drugs are white.

“New York’s drug sentencing laws are the Jim Crow laws of the 21st Century,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director and the report’s lead author. “Prosecution of drug offenses has sent hundreds of thousands to prison, most of whom were charged with low-level, non-violent offenses. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have been a driving force in incarcerating a prison population that is almost exclusively black and brown.”

The report features demographic maps created by the Justice Mapping Center that analyze who is sent to prison for drug offenses from the state’s five largest cities. The maps depict the racial and ethnic bias inherent in the state’s drug policy and illustrate the exorbitant cost of locking up drug offenders.

For example, 25 percent of adults in New York City sent to prison in 2006 came from neighborhoods with just 4 percent of the city’s adult population. More than half were admitted for drug offenses, and 97 percent were black or Latino.

In Buffalo, 25 percent of adults sent to prison come from areas with just 6 percent of the city’s adult population. One in four is admitted for drug offenses and 91 percent are black or Latino.

The maps also show the enormous cost of combating drug-related crime through massive incarceration. For example, taxpayers spent more than $27.5 million to imprison Rochester residents convicted of drug offenses in 2006, and another $21 million to imprison Albany residents convicted of drug offenses that year. More than $440 million was spent to incarcerate New York City residents sent to prison in 2006 for drug offenses.

Based on estimates calculated by the state Commission on Sentencing Reform, taxpayers will pay about $600 million to incarcerate drug offenders in 2009 alone.

“Faced with a major recession and a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, New York cannot afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars locking up nonviolent drug offenders,” Lieberman said. “Money saved through reforming the drug-sentencing laws could be spent helping struggling New Yorkers get back on their feet.”

The report makes several recommendations for reform, including:

  • Reduce sentences for those convicted of drug-related crimes.
  • Restore judicial discretion and end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
  • Develop and invest in a statewide alternative to incarceration model to provide supervised treatment, education and employment training for those who would be better served by diversion than by prison.
  • Provide retroactive sentencing relief for those already incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Imprisonment for drug-related crimes should be the last resort, reserved for truly violent offenders,” Perry said. “Adopting a public health model to address the problems related to substance abuse will not only save taxpayers money, it will move the state toward a more fair and effective strategies for promoting justice and public safety.”