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”

Being Smart on Crime: Real Reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws

Andrew Dructor, Staff Writer

The election season promised “change” and discussion of “change” has remained relevant as the government continues to look for solutions to put a halt to the economic free-fall. This change has involved federal government bail-outs in order to try and cure mistakes and instances of poor judgment in order to revitalize the economy.  However, at the same time states across the nation are seeking ways to bail themselves out of budget deficits.  The New York Times has noted that that this has led to a broad “trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime” with proposals to abolish the death penalty, release non-violent offenders early,1 and even legalize marijuana.2 Does this mean that these states are choosing to be soft on crime, or are these economic struggles and budget deficits propelling a bigger change in the debate over whether some of these crime-fighting costs are actually achieving their intended purposes and, if not, how can we improve the criminal justice system?

Currently, New York finds itself in the same dilemma as other states across the country.  It has a $14 billion budget shortage and is also in the midst of exploring changes to its criminal justice system.  This reform has focused on the Rockefeller Drug Laws which mandate prison sentences based on the weight of the drug involved.3 The law came into existence in 1973 in order to halt the rising drug use and crime rate by “frighten[ing] drug users out of their habit and drug dealers out of their trade.”4 As Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly, explains, “For instance, a person convicted of possessing one-half ounce of a narcotic drug must be sentenced to prison, no questions asked. Possession of 2 ounces of methamphetamine is punishable by mandatory imprisonment of up to 10 years.”5 On the other hand, an individual convicted of assault that causes “serious injury to another person” faces a sentence of two to seven years.6 The mandatory sentences require prison unless a prosecutor gives consent to send the drug abuser to a treatment program.7 The law allows no judicial discretion in the sentencing process.

However, many studies dispute whether the law actually achieves its purpose. “Most scientific evidence,” the scholars observe, “suggests that there is little if any relationship between fluctuations in crime rates and incarceration rates”8 and “according to government sources, illicit drugs are more easily accessible than ever.”9 One individual convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws commented in the New York Times that being sent away with murderers and other criminals failed to scare him away from drugs.  “It’s not a deterrent, because they come out bitter, angry, confused, and they just go back where they left off,” he said of prison. “There, you’re so busy thinking about survival that you don’t have time to make changes in yourself.”10 Fortunately, he was able to end his drug dependency following prison by attending drug treatment programs.11 Continue reading “Being Smart on Crime: Real Reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws”