A Response to Reforming Rockefeller Drug Laws

Steve Sharp, Staff Writer

In the early 1970s, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller led an effort to enact mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses to deter the proliferation of drugs.1 This effort culminated in the enactment of one of the nation’s toughest sentencing schemes for drug offenders, which established mandatory incarceration periods based on the measured weight of the drug possessed or sold.2 The so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDL) were criticized almost from their inception.3

The new laws required, among other things, a sentence of fifteen-years-to-life for a conviction (even for a first-time conviction) of selling one ounce or possessing two ounces of a controlled substance, required incarceration for all Class A, B and C drug felonies, eliminated the ability of judges to impose non-prison sentences for repeat felony offenders, and, in place of this discretion, imposed mandatory minimum sentences.4 Class A drug felonies were categorized into three different characterizations (A-I, A-II and A-III), reflecting the amount of drugs sold or possessed.5

Today, criticism still surrounds the RDL, despite the myriad amendments that have been enacted over the years.6 Indeed, referring to the current statutes as Rockefeller Laws is a “misnomer,”7 as they are beyond substantive recognition.  In Being Smart on Crime: Real Reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the Albany Government Law Review Fireplace’s Andrew Dructor, relying heavily on the New York Civil Liberties Union sources, espouses the usual arguments in support of more reform: economic derivatives, racial disparity, lack of a deterrent effect and the need for treatment, particularly in cases of so-called “non-violent” offenders.8 Each of these justifications simply fails to persuade, especially in the face of well-reasoned arguments for the status quo.  I hope to dispel the myths underlying the movement to reform these laws as well as to convince the Legislature to keep the RDL as they are. Continue reading “A Response to Reforming Rockefeller Drug Laws”