At a legislative hearing held today in Manhattan, 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.

Robert Perry, the NYCLU's legislative director, testified at the joint hearing of the State Assembly's standing committees on codes, judiciary, correction, health, alcoholism and drug abuse, and social services.

“We urge you, as legislative leaders, to advance the critique of a sentencing structure that ties the hands of judges, grants prosecutors enormous and essentially unreviewable powers, and results in the routine miscarriage of justice,” Perry said.

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Using maps created by the NYCLU and the Justice Mapping Center, Perry showed legislators that 25 percent of adults sent to prison from the city come from areas, black and Latino communities, with only 4 percent of the city's adult population. More than half are incarcerated on drug offenses and 97 percent are black or Latino.

A second map showed that state taxpayers will spend more than $1.1 billion to imprison New York City residents convicted of drug offenses in 2006 over the course of their prison terms. Drug offenses will account for more than 40 percent of prison costs for all city residents sent to prison that year.

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws are unjust, inhumane and ineffective,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who did not testify. “Our lawmakers can end this chronic injustice. They must muster the courage to restore judicial discretion to drug sentencing and explore alternatives to incarceration that treat non-violent drug offenders instead of locking them away for years.”

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.

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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.

The Sentencing Commission, established by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, is charged with reforming New York's convoluted and complex sentencing system. The commission released preliminary report last year that did not include any substantive recommendations for reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, despite previous claims that the laws were a top priority.

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