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NYCLU: Sentencing Commission Report Squanders Historic Opportunity on Drug Law Reform

The New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform’s final report, released today, falls short of Governor Paterson’s call for a complete overhaul of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform’s final report, released today, falls short of Governor Paterson’s call for a complete overhaul of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The New York Civil Liberties Union urges fundamental reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of illegal drugs. Intended to target major drug traffickers, the drug laws have instead caused the large-scale incarceration of low-level, nonviolent drug users. As noted in the Sentencing Commission’s report, the laws have produced unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white.

“The State Sentencing Commission claims to embrace the principles of drug law reform, but its proposals just perpetuate the status quo. Sadly, the commission has squandered a historic opportunity to address this shameful blight on our criminal justice system,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “New York cannot correct its unjust, cruel and wasteful drug sentencing scheme without overhauling the laws that created it. We encourage Governor Paterson to improve on the commission’s report by supporting reforms that provide true judicial discretion in drug sentencing, expand and fund alternative to incarceration programs, and provide long-sought justice to the thousands of families that have been torn apart by the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

The commission’s report acknowledges that sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison may be ineffective and counterproductive; but the report’s proposals would preclude judges from considering alternatives to incarceration for thousands of individuals who would benefit from treatment and rehabilitation. Specifically, the committee’s recommendations would:

  • Preclude youthful offenders with certain prior convictions from diversion to rehabilitation.
  • Require a “certification of addiction” procedure that will result in a complex and costly factual dispute that prosecutors will always be better armed to win.
  • Exclude from eligibility for diversion those who are not addicted but could nevertheless be better served by community based rehabilitation programs. Successful diversion models employed across the country and in New York State demonstrate that providing mental health, vocational and educational services offer the best outcomes.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws’ mandatory minimum sentencing scheme compels judges to hand out fixed sentences regardless of the circumstances surrounding an individual’s arrest. The criteria for guilt is not the offender’s role in the drug transaction or whether the offender poses a genuine threat to others, but simply the quantity of drugs in his or her possession at the time of arrest. The discretion to impose sentences based upon the unique circumstances of each case and to divert nonviolent offenders into suitable alternative-to-incarceration programs should be returned to the judiciary in order to ensure fair and appropriate sentences.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were intended to target drug kingpins, but most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record.

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws are destroying lives and wasting tax dollars, and have neither curbed drug use nor enhanced public safety,” Lieberman said. “Unfortunately the Sentencing Commission’s report will result in more of the same.”

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