As part of New York state's 2009-10 budget, Gov. David Paterson signed into law April 24 reforms of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973 and named for then-New York Gov. and later U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who led the state from 1959 to 1973. Opponents -- including the state's Catholic bishops and their public-policy arm, the New York State Catholic Conference -- have long criticized the laws for failing to discriminate between low-level addicts and high-level dealers, and failing to offer such incarceration alternatives as rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities.
According to a statement from the governor's office, the "sweeping reforms" eliminate the harsh sentences that the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated by giving judges the discretion to divert nonviolent drug-addicted individuals to treatment alternatives and committing tens of billions of dollars to expanding drug-treatment programs. The reforms strike a balance "to ensure that non-violent addicted offenders get the treatment they need while predatory kingpins get the punishment they deserve," according to the statement.
The statement pointed out three significant pieces of the new laws. First, they create a drug-treatment program to be administered by drug-court judges. Second, new offenders are relieved from some of the old Rockefeller Drug Laws' mandatory sentencing provisions, while opportunities are provided for additional relief for some offenders who remain incarcerated under the old laws. Third, the laws ensure that offenders who are not addicted but who profit from the addictions of others are appropriately sentenced to state prison.
Paterson "believes that law enforcement should target drug kingpins instead of low-level drug users, and the law creates a new drug 'kingpin' offense that targets organized drug traffickers who profit from and prey on drug users. The law also creates new crimes to ensure that adults who sell drugs to children are appropriately required to serve time in State prison," according to the statement.
On March 27, Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver came together to announce they'd reached an agreement to enact the drug-law reforms.
At that time, Richard Barnes, executive director of the Catholic conference, praised Paterson and the legislators who forged the reform agreement.
"Just as history links the name of Nelson Rockefeller with these well-intended but tragically destructive laws, let history recall that the leadership of David Paterson has righted this terrible wrong," he said in a statement. "This issue has long been a top personal priority for him, and without his persistence and support, it is hard to imagine this outcome."
Publication Date: 04-24-2009)