By Donna Lieberman — Gov. David Paterson understands what’s wrong with the Rockefeller Drug Laws: He was arrested in 2002 for civil disobedience protesting the draconian laws.
Five years later, Paterson has a historic opportunity to finally end New York’s failed “mandatory-minimum” drug-sentencing scheme.
The powerful prosecutor lobby is pulling out all stops to hold onto a law that was intended to target drug kingpins, but instead strips judges of the authority to sentence even non-violent, low level drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.
But Governor Paterson knows better and should stand strong for reform.
Without enhancing public safety or deterring drug use, Rockefeller squanders lives, disrupts families, wastes tax dollars and causes shocking racial disparities. U. S. government statistics report that most people who buy and sell drugs are white. Yet more than 90 percent of people imprisoned for drug offenses in New York are black or Latino.
A handful of low-income New York City neighborhoods bear the brunt of this discriminatory enforcement. Seventy percent of people from the city incarcerated for drug offenses come from our poorest black and Latino neighborhoods: the South Bronx, Harlem, Brownsville, the Lower East Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and South Jamaica.
A comparison of two Brooklyn communities of similar population illustrates the disparity: In 2006, about 160 people in East New York were incarcerated for drug offenses. That same year, only 10 people from the predominately white neighborhoods of Kensington/Borough Park went to prison for drug offenses.
These disparities recall the Jim Crow era, when laws were different for blacks and whites. With Rockefeller, there’s one law for all, but two very different sets of enforcement. The New York City pattern repeats itself statewide: In Syracuse, the racial disparity in drug arrests for blacks and whites is 99 to 1; Albany, 58 to 1; Rochester, Buffalo and Westchester County, approximately 35 to 1. Like Jim Crow, the Rockefeller Drug Laws are a tool of racial discrimination.
Many people imprisoned under Rockefeller have substance abuse problems, are mentally ill or homeless. But instead of treatment, job training or an education, they receive a jail sentence that prepares them for little else than a return ticket to prison.
Taxpayers also pay the price: We spent more than $440 million to incarcerate New York City residents in 2006 for drug offenses. In this dismal economy, we cannot waste money on a policy that doesn’t work.
The State Assembly has taken a bold first step, passing a reform bill that restores judicial discretion in sentencing and allows rehabilitation and drug treatment as alternatives to incarceration. The State Senate must pass a similar proposal. Then, with the stroke of a pen, Governor Paterson can end 36 years of injustice.
Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.