Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman (D/WF-Brooklyn) announced today that the Assembly passed a plan to reform New York’s ineffective and outdated Rockefeller drug laws, allowing judges to sentence some non-violent, lower-level offenders to mandatory drug treatment programs as a potential alternative to prison.
The plan is expected to save New York $164 million annually, alleviating crowded prisons while cracking down on violent offenders and treating the causes of drug-related crime.
"After 30 years it’s time to acknowledge that mandatory prison sentences don’t cure drug addiction. And in terms of reducing crime, research shows that treatment is in many cases a much more effective and less costly alternative to incarceration," Assemblywoman Millman said. "This measure frees the court to decide the most appropriate sentence – to make the punishment fit the crime."
Assemblywoman Millman noted a 1997 Rand Corporation study that found drug treatment was 15 times more effective than mandatory minimum sentences at reducing serious crimes committed against people and property by drug offenders. Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman has estimated that graduates of drug court diversion programs operated by the court system commit two-thirds fewer crimes than drug offenders who are simply incarcerated for a period of time.
The Assembly bill (A.7078) would:
- Give judges and prosecutors discretion in recommending drug treatment as a potential alternative to prison
- Create a new drug-related Class B-II felony for certain lower level sale or possession cases involving relatively small amounts of narcotics
- Give judges more flexibility in sentencing individuals on Class B and lower felonies
"New York has achieved great success in reducing crime – especially violent crime – in recent years. And we can build on this success by working to eliminate the problem of substance abuse, which lies at the core of most criminal behavior," Assemblywoman Millman said.
Reforming a broken, outdated system
Since their enactment in 1973, the Rockefeller drug laws have become infamous for their severe and inflexible mandatory minimum sentences. The law has been criticized as being unnecessarily harsh and having a disproportionate impact on minorities.
"Each year, thousands of people with no history of violence are sent to prison in New York for possessing or selling small quantities of controlled substances," Millman said. "Some of these low-level offenders could be ordered to treatment monitored by probation officers, in an effort to ensure that they end their drug dependency, and return to society ready to work and support their families."
Treating the causes of crime
Under these reforms, prosecutors will have the ability to recommend and judges may order certain felony drug offenders, whose non-violent crimes resulted from drug abuse, to drug treatment programs as an alternative to a mandatory state prison term.
The plan allows prosecutors to first review whether or not a non-violent drug offender should be diverted from prison to drug treatment. The court could take no action while the prosecutor reviews the case. A judge would then make the final determination on whether an offender is placed in mandatory drug treatment as a potential alternative to prison.
"Our plan gives courts, prosecutors, prison officials, and treatment providers the tools they need to fight drug addiction and reduce crime," Assemblywoman Millman said.
Combating drug-related gun violence
Recognizing the deadly connection between the drug trade and firearms, the new legislation imposes a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of possessing a loaded handgun with the intent to use it while selling or attempting to sell drugs. The plan also retains life sentences for drug kingpins who engage in major drug trafficking.
"This timely reform of the Rockefeller drug laws ensures we deal with the drug problem with fairness," Assemblywoman Millman said, "that we fight drugs and crime – not the victims of addiction and poverty."