Today, New York State stands ready to finally end a failed experiment designed to combat the social problem of drug addiction with harsh, mandatory prison sentences for persons who, in truth, may not belong in our prisons. The Assembly’s vote Wednesday, March 4 in favor of sweeping reforms to the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, reforms which I was pleased to co-sponsor, has set the stage to close the door on 36 years of waste.
During those 36 years I have held a unique vantage point from which I was able to compare the intention of those laws with their results. In 1974, I was elected to represent Northern Manhattan, which was devastated by the heroin trafficking the Rockefeller laws were intended to fight.
At that time, an addict arrested while in possession of drugs could choose between treatment and prison. Many elected to avoid the mandatory three-year medical confinement by pleading guilty to a crime and accepting a prison sentence of two years or less. This approach did not work.
Imposing mandatory sentences of 15 to 25 years or longer in some cases, as the Rockefeller laws require our judges to do for persons convicted of possession of small amounts of narcotics, was intended to discourage drug use but has not.
Giving prosecutors the power to decide who should be imprisoned for drug crimes and for how long, while taking that authority away from jurists who are elected to judge what punishment is appropriate for a particular crime, was intended to make us safer. It has not.
The only contribution of value the Rockefeller laws have made is putting violent drug dealers in prison where they belong. Our neighborhood is a very different place today than it was in 1974. But along the way, untold thousands of non-violent drug offenders were swept up into our criminal justice system and locked away without adequate access to programs that could have changed their lives, and ours, for the better. This tragedy cannot be allowed to continue.
The human potential of these non-violent offenders, many of whom were addicts who could have become productive members of society if they had had the chance to undergo treatment, will never be known. We do know that billions of public dollars were spent on their incarceration.
Drug kingpins who place their personal greed above the good of society, violent felons, and those who sell narcotics to children or near our schools will continue to go to jail and serve long sentences, though critics of these reforms would have you believe otherwise. Also untrue are claims that these reforms would weaken law enforcement and cause a spike in violent crime.
In the coming days, the Legislature stands to achieve its first major reform since the Senate changed hands in 2008. After decades of gridlock, we are at last on a path to true reform, which has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of New Yorkers while at the same time reducing the size and cost of government. I commend my colleagues for supporting these reforms and look forward to the day when they become the law and the policy of our state.
Herman D. Farrell, Jr.