Assemblywoman Jacobs Says New State Budget Reforms Ineffective Rockefeller Drug Laws

Legislation restores judicial discretion, imposes harsher penalties for violent drug offenders and drug kingpins
March 30, 2009
Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs (D-Flatbush) announced that the 2009-2010 state budget includes reform of the 35-year-old Rockefeller Drug Laws that mandate minimum sentences for many lower-level, non-violent drug offenders – but maintains maximum penalties.

The reforms will save New York taxpayers some of the millions of dollars it costs to incarcerate these offenders – and make the criminal justice system more effective and fair in such cases – by:

  • restoring sentencing discretion to judges;
  • making probation a sentencing option;
  • expanding other sentencing and substance abuse treatment options; and
  • providing a framework for the successful reentry of drug offenders into society after completing their sentences.

“It’s been a long time, but we finally passed significant reforms of the outdated and ineffective Rockefeller Drug Laws,” Jacobs said. “The laws don’t work and they have unfairly targeted minorities, but they needed to be reformed in a careful and prudent manner. The Assembly Majority has fought for years to accomplish that goal, and today we took a big step forward. These reforms restore judicial discretion to mandate treatment for lower-level drug offenders as a potential alternative to a lengthy state prison sentence.”

Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Health demonstrates that the Rockefeller Drug Laws have been unsuccessful in reducing illicit drug use among New Yorkers. Furthermore, overwhelming numbers of inmates within the prison population continue to suffer from unaddressed substance abuse issues.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws have also disproportionately impacted the state’s African-American and Latino communities, said Ms. Jacobs. African-Americans and Latinos make up 90 percent of the state prison population under sentence for drug offenses, yet studies show that the rate of illicit drug use is 8.7 percent for blacks, 8.1 percent for whites, and 7.2 percent for Latinos.

Assemblywoman Jacobs said under the plan, illegal drugs will remain illegal in New York State. New crimes are also created for certain categories of drug-related offenses, including adults over the age of 21 who deal drugs to minors under the age of 17, and drug kingpins.

Prison Sentences & Alternative Sentences

All first-time drug offenders convicted of class E through B felonies would be probation-eligible – except those convicted of a new “sale to minors” crime. Under the reform, second-time drug offenders except those committing a second class B or class A felony would be eligible for probation if the prior conviction is for a non-violent felony offense. Again, this provision excludes those convicted of a drug sale to a minor.

According to the legislation, the mandatory minimum sentence for most second offender class B drug felonies would be 2 years rather than 3.5 years. The minimum sentence for a second offender class C felony would be 1.5 years rather than 2 years, and a second offender class C felon could be considered for probation and treatment, Jacobs said.

Assistant Speaker Jacobs noted that the reforms include implementation of a statutorily defined, uniform drug-diversion program. Existing district attorney-sponsored Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) programs are preserved under the agreement.

Additional provisions would:

  • allow sealing of the convictions of those qualifying and passing through the diversion programs;
  • allow courts to consider new sentences for class B drug offenders remaining in prison under the old drug laws except those with a history of violent felony convictions;
  • expand shock incarceration eligibility with the Department of Correctional Facilities (DOCS) consistent with the governor’s proposal;
  • expand the Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment program to provide treatment to additional individuals in prison;
  • allow a judge to order qualifying individuals physically unable to participate in the DOCS shock incarceration program to get a less physically demanding version of the shock incarceration program; and
  • expand drug treatment in DOCS facilities in accordance with the governor’s proposal.

The Rockefeller Drug Law reforms put an end to the “one-size-fits-all” approach that cost New York State hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 35 years. It enables judges to craft tough, meaningful, fair sentences and helps break the seemingly never-ending cycle of drug abuse and violence, according to Jacobs.

“These reforms will ensure that judges have the necessary discretion to send non-violent drug offenders to treatment while maintaining the ability to put those who deserve stiff sentences behind bars. The annual cost to taxpayers for incarceration is approximately $45,000 per inmate, an extraordinary cost when there are proven, successful alternatives for many lower-level, non-violent drug offenders,” concluded Jacobs.