Back to All Commentary

Op-Ed: What’s The Governor Thinking? (New York Daily News)

By Donna Lieberman and Russell Simmons — Reports from Albany in early June indicated the legislature was close to an agreement on a modest proposal to reform New York’s cruel and irrational drug-sentencing statutes. Governor Pataki then walked away, once again, from his commitment to enact meaningful reform of the notoriously unjust Rockefeller Drug Laws.

There had been reason for hope. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had convened a bi-partisan conference committee to work out a compromise bill. The public proceedings (an unusual occurrence in Albany) made painfully clear that the current mandatory sentencing scheme is legally, fiscally and morally indefensible.

These laws waste more than a hundred million dollars each year. They have not deterred drug abuse. They have torn apart families and communities. They have perpetuated a law-enforcement regime that is blatantly racist. The majority of people who buy and sell drugs are white, but 93 percent of the drug offenders in New York prisons are black or Latino.

New York’s drug laws have become a national disgrace. Legislatures in Michigan, Maryland, North Dakota, Indiana, Louisiana, Connecticut and Kansas have been repealing or scaling back harsh mandatory sentencing schemes for non-violent drug offenses and providing for treatment, training and rehabilitation as alternatives. But not in New York, which holds the dubious distinction of having the most regressive and counter-productive drug-sentencing laws in the country – as documented in a recent report by State Senator David Paterson.

On this point there is virtual consensus among policy makers, health experts, and criminologists: the 30-year war on drugs has been an abject failure. Drug use among the young has doubled between 1992 and 2000. The arguments for maintaining the status quo – that the Rockefeller Drug Laws are necessary to protect public safety – are nonsensical.

The overwhelming majority of drug offenders in New York prisons are there for non-violent offenses. Two-thirds have addiction problems. And, according to a study by the Rand Corporation (no left-wing organization), treatment is about 1,500 percent more affective than incarceration in preventing drug-related crimes.

The evidence for enacting major reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws is incontrovertible. All this would mean is returning to judges their constitutional authority to impose a prison sentence or to mandate treatment, based on all the relevant circumstances before the court.

For example, a young mother with no prior offenses who is charged with possession of a few grams of a controlled substance might be ordered to in-patient treatment – instead of a mandatory minimum prison term of up to 8 1/3 years. Treatment could help her overcome an addiction problem and keep her family together. Under current Rockefeller Drug Laws, if she were to spend long years in prison, she might lose her family and she would still have her drug problem.

Failure even to mitigate the injustice worked by the Rockefeller Drug Laws – which is all that the legislature’s compromise bill has proposed – cannot be justified.

So, just what is Governor Pataki thinking?

Donna Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director. Russell Simmons is Chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union