Monday, April 27, 2009

Finally, Rockefeller Drug Law Repeal

After 36 years, New York State has finally repealed the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The end has seemed near ever since the Democratic Party took over the New York State Senate this year for the first time in more than 45 years. It became official late last week when Governor Paterson signed the long-awaited repeal bill.

Laws That Needed to Be Repealed

The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973 and mandated that New Yorkers who were found guilty of possessing illegal drugs be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. The Rockefeller Drug Laws were designed to equate drug possession (a non-violent crime) with second-degree murder. In fact, there have been a number of New Yorkers who were imprisoned as first time offenders under the Rockefeller Drug Laws and who then saw those convicted of murdering their loved ones enter and leave prison before they left prison themselves as first-time, non-violent offenders.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws were abused by law enforcement and prosecutors to imprison a large number of young people of color for long periods of time despite their lack of a criminal record or any hint of violence. Ninety percent of those imprisoned in New York State under the Rockefeller Drug Laws are Black or latino despite the fact that white New Yorkers represent 73% of drug users in New York State.

That warrants repeating.

NINETY PERCENT of those imprisoned under New York's drug laws are Black or latino, but 73% of drug users are not Black or latino. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have been an excuse to imprison young people of color and have not been used to abuse the white population in the way that they have been used to abuse communities of color in New York State.

Elections Have Consequences

We argued prior to the November 2008 elections that New Yorkers needed to give the Democrats control of the New York State Senate in order to get legislative reform and other improvements in Albany. One of the key benefits of the victory that the Democrats achieved in November in New York State is the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

It could not have happened without that Democratic victory, and it happened as a direct result of the votes we cast in November.

Fiscal Conservatism Supported Repeal

The repeal of the Rockefeller Drug laws will save hundreds of millions of dollars each year. New York State spends more than one half of a billion dollars each year to imprison non-violent drug offenders, and the reduction in the volume those incarcerations coupled with the reduced prison population that results from the retroactivity of the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws will dramatically reduce New York State's expenditures on prisons. That reduction in spending will allow New York State to avoid some cuts in services and reduces the amount of increased taxation that New York State must undertake in order to balance its budget.

Praise for Albany - For A Change

New York State's elected officials are rarely praised, and often, the lack of praise is appropriate in light of the performance we see in Albany. The repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws shows that Albany can make the changes we need; Albany can make change quickly, and Albany can succeed despite heavy opposition from well organized groups (such as the District Attorneys in the case of the Rockefeller Drug Laws).

It took more than three decades for New York to correct this mistake, but it's finally happened. And, for a change, we can rejoice in an Albany achievement. - Gabe Pressman, NBC


  1. Gregg,

    As an avid drug user and distributor, I am so happy that this law was finally repealed!

    I'm joking of course but my comment highlights how insane the law was to start. As if the ONLY people that would be against these laws are drug pushing criminals and those soft on crime.

    1973 is not the beginning of society's discussion about the correlation between prison and deterrence. Social scientists have been challenging the value and impact of prison on behavior from the beginnings of prison systems thousands of years ago. It was well known at the time of the Rockefeller Drug Laws that harsh and punitive prison sentences were a greater burden to society than to criminals. The cost their food, shelter and healthcare only begins to tell the story. What about the lost productive value of their lives and those of their families? What about the cost of monitoring them after they come out and the likelihood that they get an all expense paid trip back to prison as a result of an extreme lack of economic opportunities?

    What's more, these laws somehow targeted the crack form of cocaine that the "ghetto people" consumed compared to the blow form of cocaine that the "sophisticated people" consumed.

    I agree that these are not accidents and it has been shameful for New York State to selectively target and punish the criminal habits of African American and Latinos while handling the criminality of our white citizens with "kid gloves".

    I’ve often thought about how vicious these laws were and how we should attack them using the words of Jesus and concepts of fairness. Murder does not equal drug possession. Who does? And why?

    - Charles Sheffield

  2. So correct, Charles. The 90% vs 73% speaks for itself. Incarceration has been the answer for 36 years for people of color. For other people, incarceration is not considered appropriate.