Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny: Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Plan puts emphasis on treating drug addiction as well as punishment
April 18, 2007
Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D-Coney Island, Dyker Heights) announced that the Assembly passed a plan to further reform New York’s ineffective and outdated Rockefeller drug laws, focusing on steering lower-level, non-violent offenders to compulsory drug treatment as a potential alternative to prison.

The legislation could reduce prison costs and save New Yorkers about $123 million annually while cracking down on violent offenders and treating the causes of drug-related crimes. The reforms are also aimed at eliminating street-level drug crimes, and also creating new crimes for the possession of firearms related to drug sales.

“Many first-time drug offenders face long, mandatory prison terms, while many violent criminals and drug kingpins skirt around the laws,” Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said. “If we want to fight drugs and drug crimes, we must also fight addiction. In many cases, new crimes could be prevented by mandatory treatment of drug offenders.”

According to a Rand Corporation study, treatment is 15 times more effective than mandatory-minimum sentences in reducing serious crimes committed by drug offenders.

Combating drug addiction

Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said the bill (A.6663-A) would expand the use of drug courts in New York, establishing one in each county and authorizing them to direct eligible defendants who suffer from substance abuse dependency to a Court Approved Drug Abuse Treatment (CADAT) program.

The bill also assures that prosecutors – in all cases for which diversion for treatment is possible – have the first opportunity to decide whether these defendants without violent histories charged with lower-level drug offenses are appropriate candidates for CADAT. Under the Assembly’s plan, the court wouldn’t be able to take any action while the prosecutor reviews the case. But after the evaluation, the judge would make the final determination on whether an offender is sentenced to mandatory drug treatment or prison.

Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman has estimated that graduates of drug court diversion programs commit two-thirds fewer crimes than offenders who are simply incarcerated. Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said the plan is a more effective way to fight drug addiction and reduce crime, giving courts limited discretion on a case-by-case basis.

“The potential benefits of the Assembly approach are dramatic,” Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said. “Drug court judges will be able to monitor and follow-up these cases, retaining the power to sanction jail offenders to help assure compliance with treatment requirements. People who successfully complete mandated treatment will be able to turn their lives around, thereby protecting the public as well as saving public funds. And the courts and prison system will also be able to focus aggressively on the most serious offenders.”

Other highlights of the Assembly bill include:

  • Subjecting major drug traffickers to strict penalties by creating a new crime – Trafficking Through a Controlled Substance Organization – punishable by a mandatory, indeterminate prison term of 15 years to life, or up to 30 years to life;
  • Making certain lower-level controlled substance offenders – excluding inmates with disqualifying factors or convictions for violent felonies – eligible to apply for a conversion of their sentence to a new term consistent with the sentencing reforms enacted in 2004 and thereafter;
  • Requiring the Department of Correctional Services to initiate new transitional services programs at state facilities with the goal of reducing offender recidivism and crime;
  • Giving judges more flexibility in sentencing individuals convicted of certain Class B and lower drug felonies;
  • Investing in crime-mapping techniques to identify and crack down on high-density drug-trafficking areas; and
  • Modifying the current presumption of possession in certain circumstances when controlled substances are found in a room or automobile with multiple individuals, allowing juries to make “a permissible inference” rather than presume all occupants possessed the controlled substance.

“New York has made great strides in reducing crime,” Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said. “But we must also make a concerted effort to fight substance abuse and addiction – the root causes of most drug crimes – so we can further reduce crime levels.”

Reforming a broken, outdated system

The Rockefeller drug laws – first enacted in 1973 – are notorious for their overly harsh and inflexible mandatory-minimum sentences. These laws have also been criticized for having a disproportionate impact on minority defendants.

In December 2004, legislation was enacted (Ch. 738 of 2004) that reformed some aspects of the law governing drug offender sentencing. The 2004 law eliminated parole and generally lowered available sentences for non-violent drug offenders while increasing sentencing ranges for drug offenders with a history of committing violent crimes. The new reform law allowed certain class A-1 drug possession felony offenders to apply for re-sentencing under the new structure. The law also made it possible for certain drug-sentenced inmates to earn time reductions by successfully completing drug abuse treatment and other prison programs. A 2005 law allowed class A-II drug possession felony offenders to seek re-sentencing under the new determinate sentencing system.

“While the recent changes were an important first step in moderating the harshest sentences under the state’s drug laws, additional reforms are necessary to allow courts the discretion to successfully fight drug addiction,” Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said.

Combating drug-related gun violence and drug kingpins

Recognizing the potentially deadly connection between the drug trade and firearms, the new legislation establishes a five-year minimum determinate sentence for anyone convicted of physically possessing a loaded firearm, machine gun or disguised gun while selling or attempting to sell drugs.

In addition, the bill creates new crimes to increase available penalties for certain categories of drug-related offenders, including a new drug kingpin crime with a sentence of 15-30 years to life in prison and increased penalties for selling or attempting to sell drugs to minors.

“These reforms will combat drug-related crime by imposing stricter sentences for the harshest criminals and allowing courts to order non-violent addicts into mandatory treatment,” Assemblyman Brook-Krasny said.