Assemblymember Cahill: Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Plan puts emphasis on treating drug addiction while saving money
May 4, 2004

Assemblymember Kevin Cahill (D-Ulster, Dutchess) announced that the Assembly passed a plan to reform New York’s ineffective and outdated Rockefeller drug laws, giving judges the discretion to sentence some non-violent offenders to compulsory drug treatment programs instead of prison.

The plan could save New York as much as $164 million annually, reducing prison crowding while cracking down on violent offenders and treating the causes of drug-related crime.

"I hope we’ve finally learned after 30 years that if we want to fight drugs and drug crimes, we first have to fight addiction," Mr. Cahill said. "Treatment is a much more effective tool than incarceration in a lot of circumstances and this measure gives the criminal justice system the power to find the most appropriate sentence."

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

The Assembly bill (A.7078-A) would:

  • establish opportunities for drug treatment as an 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 controlled substances; and
  • give judges more flexibility in sentencing individuals on Class B and lower felonies.

"New York has made great strides in reducing crime," Assemblymember Cahill said. "If we also make a concerted effort to fight substance abuse and addiction – the root causes of most crimes – we can bring crime levels down even further."

Reforming a broken, outdated system

The Rockefeller drug laws, first enacted in 1973, are infamous for their harsh and inflexible mandatory-minimum sentences. The law has also been criticized for having a disproportionate impact on minorities.

"Thousands of non-violent people are locked up each year for possessing small amounts of controlled substances. That’s no way to help them get out from under the yoke of addiction," said Mr. Cahill. "Many of these low-level offenders would benefit greatly from monitored treatment, giving them a real chance to break their drug dependency and succeed in life."

Treating the causes of crime

With these reforms, prosecutors and judges will be able to order certain felony drug offenders whose non-violent crimes resulted from drug abuse to treatment programs instead of prison. Prosecutors would first evaluate whether or not a non-violent drug offender should be diverted from prison to drug treatment. During that evaluation, the court would not be able to take any action. After the evaluation, the judge would make the final determination on whether an offender is sentenced to mandatory drug treatment or prison.

"This plan gives us many more tools to fight drug addiction and reduce crime," the Assemblymember said. "Everyone will benefit. Addicts will be able to get treatment, the court system will be able to concentrate on more serious offenders and taxpayers will be safer and save money."

Ending drug laws that hit minority communities the hardest

Many minority families have been disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller drug laws, which are among the harshest mandatory-minimum drug laws in the nation.

"Almost every person – 94 percent – incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws is African-American or Latino, even though they make up less than a third of New York’s population. And that’s despite the fact that all races use drugs at about the same rate. Every New Yorker deserves fairness and justice, and we have to make sure they get it," Mr. Cahill said.

In addition, Assemblymember Cahill noted that the Latino and African-American communities have been disproportionately impacted by the spread of drug-related diseases through the sharing of needles. "Reforming the Rockefeller drug laws will also help us address the twin epidemics of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS," he said.

Combating drug-related gun violence

Recognizing the deadly connection between the drug trade and firearms, the new legislation imposes a mandatory five-year prison sentence on 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.

"By abandoning failed approaches and adopting reasonable and realistic strategies, this reform will give us the ability to deal with drug use and drug crimes fairly, quickly and most important, effectively," Assemblymember Cahill concluded. "We’ll finally be able to fight drugs and crime – instead of the victims of addiction and poverty."