Gov. Paterson signs into law reforms of Rockefeller Drug Laws

By chillinwill · Apr 24, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    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)
    Catholic Courier

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    New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws:
    Explaining the Reforms of 2009
    In April 2009, Governor David Paterson signed legislation enacting real reform of the draconian
    Rockefeller Drug Laws. The changes include: eliminating mandatory minimums and returning judicial
    discretion in most (but not all) drug cases; reforming sentences; expanding drug treatment and alternatives
    to incarceration; and allowing resentencing of some currently incarcerated people who are serving
    sentences under the old laws. With these reforms, New York begins its shift away from the Rockefeller
    Drug Law regime, and moves towards a public health and safety approach to drug policy.
    The 2009 reforms include the following:
    Restores judicial discretion and eliminates mandatory prison in low-level drug cases
    • Prison terms are no longer mandatory for those convicted of first time non-violent Class B, C, D and E
    felonies. Judges can sentence to probation, treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, or prison.
    • Prison terms are no longer mandatory for those convicted of second time non-violent Class C, D, and
    E felonies. Judges can sentence to probation, treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, or prison.
    • Prison terms are no longer mandatory for those convicted of second time non-violent Class B felonies
    who are deemed by a drug treatment counselor as being drug dependent or have abused drugs or
    alcohol. Judges can sentence to treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, or prison.
    • Mandatory prison terms are still required for second-time Class B felonies if defendant was convicted
    of, or had pending, a violent felony in the previous 10 years. In this case there is no judicial discretion.
    • Mandatory prison sentences remain for those convicted of Class A-I and A-II felonies—there is no
    judicial discretion. Penalties for these offenses were reduced in 2004/2005, but remain unduly harsh.
    Expands drug courts and other alternatives to incarceration, and reduces penalties
    • Expands drug treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and re-entry services by investing nearly $71
    million into those programs.
    • Allows the court to conditionally seal records of drug and some non-drug, nonviolent offenses upon a
    defendant’s successful completion of treatment or other alternative to incarceration programs. Police
    and prosecutors will continue to have access to these records as needed for criminal investigations.
    • Reduces the minimum penalty for Class B felonies from 3 ½ years to 2 years.
    Allows retroactive resentencing for approximately 1,500 currently incarcerated people
    • Allows those convicted of a Class B felony before 2005, now serving an indeterminate sentence with a
    maximum term of more than 3 years, to petition the court to be re-sentenced under new sentencing
    provisions. Judges then make a decision on re-sentencing—it is not automatic.
    • Allows those sentenced under Class B indeterminate sentences to petition the court for re-sentencing
    for Class C, D or E felonies “which were imposed by the sentencing court at the same time or were
    included in the same order of commitment” as the Class B felony.
    • Excludes from resentencing those serving Class B indeterminate sentences if they have a violent
    felony conviction in the preceding 10 years; are incarcerated for a merit-time ineligible offense; were
    convicted as a “second violent felony offender” or “persistent violent felony offender”; or previously
    sold narcotics to a minor.
    Drug Policy Alliance | 70 West 36th St., 16th fl. | New York, NY 10018 | [email protected] | phone: (212) 613-8020
    Creates new, more serious drug crime statutes
    • Establishes a “kingpin” provision as a Class A-I felony requiring a mandatory term of imprisonment of
    15 years to life. Restoring a 15 – life sentence, which was initially eliminated in 2004, is a step in the
    wrong direction.
    • Establishes a new mandatory minimum Class B felony provision for adults 21 and over that sell to
    minors under 17 years of age.
    Background on New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws
    Using prison to address drug abuse: The Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted in 1973 under then-Governor
    Nelson Rockefeller, mandated extremely harsh mandatory-minimum prison terms for the possession or
    sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers (kingpins), most of
    the people incarcerated under these laws were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, and many had
    no prior criminal records. The laws marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug abuse through
    the criminal justice system instead of the medical and public health systems. It was a shift that New
    Yorkers would soon discover didn’t work and come to regret.
    Waste of taxpayer dollars: Approximately 12,000 people remain locked up for drug offenses in New
    York State prisons, representing nearly 21% of the prison population. The state spends over $525 million
    per year to incarcerate people for drug offenses – 66% have previously never been to prison, and 80%
    have never been convicted of a violent felony. It costs approximately $45,000 to incarcerate a person for
    one year, while treatment costs average $15,000 per year, and is proven to be 15 times more effective at
    reducing crime and recidivism.
    Extreme racial disparities: The laws have led to extraordinary racial disparities in the state’s criminal
    justice system. Studies show that rates of addiction, illicit drug use and illicit drug sales are approximately
    equal between racial groups. But while Black and Latino people make up only 32% of New York State’s
    population, they comprise nearly 90% of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies. This is one of the
    highest levels of racial disparities in the nation, and is widely considered a human rights disgrace.
    Limited changes in 2004 and 2005: After years of vigorous advocacy, in December 2004 the NY State
    Legislature passed limited reforms of the laws, including some sentence reductions, increases in merit
    time, and improvements to parole. These reforms were a small step forward, but did not constitute real
    reform—for instance, the changes did not restore judicial discretion or provide funds for communitybased
    drug treatment. As then-Republican Senate Leader Joseph Bruno admitted: “This is only a small
    step, and we need to do more.”
    Today: Towards a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy in New York
    Real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws sets the stage for the development of a public health and safety
    approach to drug policy in New York City and State – policies that can successfully reduce the death,
    disease, crime and suffering associated with drug dependency and abuse. New Yorkers are ready and have
    already begun outlining the best practices of this new approach: In January of 2009, DPA and The New
    York Academy of Medicine convened the historic conference, New Directions for New York. Hundreds of
    stakeholders from the community, from NY City and State government, and the fields of public health,
    treatment, and criminal justice assembled to explore a coordinated public health and safety approach to
    drugs. Lessons from that gathering will continue to help shape the future of drug policy in New York.
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