The state Assembly passed legislation March 4 to reform New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws by eliminating most of their mandatory minimum state-prison sentences and by creating new sentencing options for judges. The legislation has been sent to the New York state Senate, which intends to include its key provisions in its upcoming budget resolution, according to a statement from Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.
Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, urged the Senate and Gov. David Paterson to support the reforms.
“True reform has been a long time in coming, and we must not let this opportunity slip away yet again. We call on the state Senate to take up and pass this bill and urge Gov. Paterson to sign it,” he said.
The current drug laws were enacted in 1973 and named for former New York Gov. and later U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who led the state from 1959 to 1973. Critics — including the state’s Catholic bishops and their public-policy arm, the New York State Catholic Conference — have long criticized them for their failure to discriminate between low-level addicts and high-level dealers, and for their failure to offer such incarceration alternatives as rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities.
“Drugs are a scourge on our society, but laws that treat the drug kingpin the same as the nonviolent addict are not just and do nothing to stop the problem,” Barnes said in a statement. “Treatment, we now know, is more effective and less expensive than prison for addicted offenders.”
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have resulted in the destruction of many families, particularly in minority communities, Barnes said.
“While the laws were well meaning, they were a failure. We look forward to the day we can say they are a part of a sad history,” he said.
The reform bill passed by the Assembly March 4, A.6085, would restore judicial discretion, thus permitting judges to sentence nonviolent offenders to probation, local jail or a combination of both. It also enhances treatment and rehabilitation options as well as initiatives designed to help facilitate offenders’ reintegration into society.
According to comments by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver during a March 4 press conference, impetus for the Assembly vote came in part from testimony gathered during two May 2008 public hearings that addressed the criminal-justice and public-health aspects of illicit drug use in New York,
“This new drug policy will be founded on the premise that drug addiction is a public-health crisis and that drug treatment works,” Silver said. “Study after study proves that a comprehensive program of treatment, counseling, housing and employment is the most effective way to treat addiction and reduce recidivism.”
Statistics have shown the recidivism rate is approximately 50 percent for drug users and addicts who go through the criminal-justice system without receiving treatment, but that this rate drops to 10 percent for offenders who receive effective treatment and counseling, Silver said.
After passage in the Assembly, the bill was sent to the Senate as S.2855. Senators met the evening of March 4 to discuss this legislation and reached a consensus about the need to reform the existing drug laws, according to a statement from Sens. Malcolm, Eric Schneiderman, Ruth Hassell-Thompson and John Sampson.
During the discussion senators raised a number of issues to consider, including the importance of investing new economic-development resources in communities where many nonviolent drug offenders currently are incarcerated to compensate for jobs that might be lost if the reforms reduce those areas’ prison populations in favor of treatment facilities elsewhere. The senators decided the best way to address such concerns would be to include several key provisions of the proposed reforms in its upcoming state budget resolution, according to the joint statement.
“”Rockefeller Drug reform can be a win-win,” the senators stated. We are addressing this issue in a diligent and prudent manner to protect communities, save taxpayers millions of dollars and reduce the high rate of recidivism that occurs under the current policy. We look forward to negotiating an agreement with the Assembly and the governor that helps us simplify and improve outdated sentencing laws.”