At a hearing today before the City Council, the New York Civil Liberties Union presented testimony illustrating the stark racial disparities and enormous financial burden generated by the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York City.

Socheatta Meng, the NYCLU’s legislative counsel, testified before the Council’s Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services.

“By mandating harsh prison sentences based primarily upon the amount of drugs involved, this state’s drug-sentencing scheme has proven itself to be draconian, irrational, unfair and racially discriminatory,” Meng said.

The NYCLU called on the City Council to urge New York State’s political leaders to significantly reform the drug sentencing laws.

“This is a new political moment,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who did not testify. “Governor Paterson, as well as key legislative leaders in Albany, have publicly pledged their commitment to reform. A fiscal crisis requires strict cost-cutting. The time is ripe for us to demand real changes to our state’s drug sentencing laws.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target drug kingpins, most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record.

Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under harsh sentences the ability to apply for shorter terms, and restrict the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs.