Assembly Passes Measure to Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws

Legislation eases harsh laws for low-level, non-violent offenders, emphasizes probation, addiction treatment
March 5, 2009
Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs (D-Flatbush) announced that the state Assembly passed legislation which, if enacted, would reform New York’s outdated 35-year-old Rockefeller Drug Laws (A.6085). The bill would restore sentencing discretion to judges by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders and making probation a sentencing option; expand other sentencing and substance and drug treatment options; and provide a framework for the successful reentry into society of drug offenders who have been sentenced.

“All available evidence shows that the mandatory minimum jail sentences associated with the Rockefeller Drug Laws have had little effective impact on crime rates or rates of substance abuse. Indeed, crime rates have risen and fallen regardless of the lack of discretion these laws give judges to sentence non-violent drug offenders to alternatives to prison,” Jacobs said. “By imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach on low-level, non-violent offenders – many of whom are substance abusers – these outdated laws have failed to keep New Yorkers safer and healthier.”

Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Health shows 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 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 .

“These common-sense reforms would ensure that judges again have the necessary discretion to keep non-violent drug offenders out of our prison system and if needed, send offenders to treatment while maintaining the discretion to put those who deserve higher sentences behind bars,” said Ms. Jacobs.

Under the reform bill, illegal drugs would remain illegal in New York State. Furthermore, the bill creates new crimes for certain categories of drug-related offenses, including: those who deal drugs while in physical possession of a loaded gun; adults over the age of 21 who deal drugs to minors under the age of 16; and drug kingpins.

Specifically, the Assembly’s reform bill:

  • Eliminates the stringent mandatory minimum state prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders by permitting a judge to sentence them to probation, local jail or a combination of both, while continuing to allow judges to sentence offenders to the maximum terms available under the law if the judge finds that circumstances so warrant;
  • Creates new sentencing options for judges – including expanding sentences of “parole supervision,” in-prison substance abuse treatment programs and shock incarceration programs – without being deprived of sentencing options available under current law;
  • Reforms technical aspects of the drug laws to make them more responsive and fair, including allowing eligible offenders to plead guilty, in some new instances, to a reduced charge, with district attorney consent; and letting offenders seek dismissal of drug charges where the offender has successfully complied with the terms of judicial diversion treatment orders;
  • Extends the benefits of drug law reform to those class B felony offenders serving sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws by allowing them the chance to seek resentencing before a court;
  • Increases chances for drug offenders to successfully reintegrate into society after completing their sentences by assessing inmates for the need for substance and drug treatment upon incarceration and entry into the state correctional system and providing substance abuse treatment where appropriate.
  • Reforms would also include providing transitional services for offenders leaving custody and reentering society and as well as authorizing judges to conditionally seal a limited number of drug convictions in offenders’ records to enable them to get a fresh start in life;
  • Requires the use of community justice information-mapping systems to identify communities with high drug abuse rates, thereby reducing substance abuse and drug-related crime in those communities by targeting resources; and
  • Asks the state comptroller to quantify the savings generated from the drug law reform and dedicate them to a fund which could be used for drug and alcohol treatment and related alternative incarceration programs, as well as school drug abuse-prevention programs.

“The strategies included in this reform bill will be far more effective at combating substance abuse and the street-level crime associated with it and will also save taxpayers countless dollars each year. The annual cost to taxpayers for drug law incarcerations is approximately $45,000 per inmate, an extraordinary cost when there are successful alternatives for low-level, non-violent drug offenders,” concluded Jacobs.