NY’s Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Takes Effect

Protesters rally outside New York Governor David Paterson's New York City office March 25, 2009 calling for an end to the remaining so-called Rockefeller-era drug laws. (Photo by Mary Altaffer / AP)Protesters rally outside New York Governor David Paterson’s New York City office March 25, 2009 calling for an end to the remaining so-called Rockefeller-era drug laws. (Photo by Mary Altaffer / AP)This week, two essential components of Rockefeller Drug Law reform go into effect: restoration of judicial discretion and resentencing eligibility for some people currently incarcerated under the failed laws. The enactment of these hard-won reforms signals a major shift in New York’s approach to drug abuse and dependency.

By restoring discretion, incarceration for drug offenses is no longer mandatory: judges once more have the ability to send individuals suffering from addiction into a range of programs, such as treatment and mental health services. In addition, nearly 1,500 people currently incarcerated under the old laws for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses can now petition the court for resentencing. If approved by a judge, many of these people will finally be released.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated extremely harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although intended to target “kingpins,” most of the people incarcerated under the laws were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many had no prior criminal records. The laws marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug abuse and dependency through the criminal justice system, instead of through health-oriented systems. Unfortunately, the Rockefeller Drug Laws became the template for implementing the nation’s drug war.

At a ceremony this week marking enactment of the reforms, Gov. David Paterson noted that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were an utter failure. “Families were broken, money was wasted and we continued to wrestle with the statewide drug problem,” he said.

And he’s right. New York spends more than $525 million per year to incarcerate people for drug offenses – 66% have never been to prison before, and 80% have never been convicted of a violent felony. It costs approximately $45,000 to incarcerate a person for one year inNew York, while treatment costs an average of $15,000 per year and is proven to be 15 times more effective at reducingcrime and recidivism. What’s more, the laws have led to extraordinary racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system. Studies show that rates of addiction, illicit drug use and sales are approximately equal among racial groups. But while blacks and Latinos make up only 34% ofNew YorkState’s population, they comprise nearly 90% of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies. This is one of the highest levels of racial disparities in the nation, and is widely considered a human rights disgrace.

Since passage of the reforms, advocates and legal and human service providers have prepared for implementation. They’ve focused first on resentencing and community reentry for thousands of people who have served long, inhumane prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Legal aid and public defender agencies notified incarcerated people of their eligibility for resentencing, while hundreds of human agencies around the state have volunteered to provide support to those released from prison under the new laws. InNew York Cityalone, more than 100 human service agencies have agreed to provide housing, job training, drug treatment, and more to people returning from prison–even before funding has been allocated for these services. These are just a few examples of the broad-based commitment, across multiple sectors, to make Rockefeller reform work.

Shreya Mandal, a mitigation specialist with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, is coordinating reentry plans for dozens of currently incarcerated people. As a social worker and lawyer, she understands the challenges and opportunities resulting from these historic changes. “Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by both addiction and a harsh and racist sentencing scheme,” she said.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws have come to represent the failures of the U.S. war on drugs – policies which are ineffective, racist, wasteful and unjust. With a shift to a health-oriented approach, New York could become a model for new direction in drug policies, based in science, compassion, health and human rights. Now that’s change to believe in.

– Article from AlterNet.



  1. Anonymous on

    This is great news, however I heard NY’s Governor on the Tavis Smiley show last night say about drug sellers: “We still need to lock them up and throw away the key.”

  2. one12alpha on

    consider the original efforts. 70 dang years! Its strange to imagine, my grandfather was a little boy who lived on a hemp farm until it became illegal…then it was hay. I spent a few years on that same farm when I was a little boy, and I vaguely remember my father killing off some plants near the back of the fields near the woods. He said “because they were bad plants”…. I didn’t really understand why, but now that I’m older I understand, and can see why he was so ambiguous. I also remember my older cousins telling me to help them try and find plants with leaves that look like kind of like my hand(not knowing they were the same plants, I tried)…Lol.

    Strange how just not knowing anything about the plant puts things into perspective. Why IS the plant bad??? What about those plants??? LOL. Innocent questions of a child, with no logical answer to satisfy them. “because I said so” never works.

  3. Anonymous on

    Hopefully the rest of the Tri-State area and soon the Nation will realize what a “Utter Failure” this “War on Drugs” has been. A failure that has lasted nearly 30 years and 70 years if you consider the original criminalization efforts against marijuana.

  4. one12alpha on

    It’s strange to me that this kind of reform is happening in America of all places. Meanwhile, Canada is pressing hard for bill C-15… a sort of opposite from the reform in this article.

    It seems like yesterday, I was wishing that the US would follow suit with Canada in loosening the noose with this nonsense. Now, it seems, maybe things will be the other way around? I know its doubtful.

    I hope more reform comes from this here in America, and I hope that Canadians are able to quash C-15 before it starts.

    Here’s to crossed fingers…

  5. A$H on

    thank god. its about time.

  6. Annah on

    Wow, that’s some of the best news of the week for the end-prohibition movement. I’m so happy for New York (my old home town) and hope to see the policy and positively turning mindset continue throughout the nation.

    Congratulations to all who are finally given justice after having their lives wrecked by those insane laws!