Governor Pataki Calls for Major Reform of New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws in State of the State Address
The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation applauds Governor Pataki for using his annual State of the State address to call for dramatic overhaul of the state's Rockefeller Drug Laws. Enacted in 1973 when Nelson Rockefeller was governor, the Rockefeller Drug Laws and Second Felony Offender Laws mandate sentences for drug offenses that are among the most punitive in the nation. For example, the harshest provisions mandate judges impose sentences of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of possessing 4 ounces or selling 2 ounces of any narcotic. The penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or background. As a result of this misguided policy tens of thousands of New Yorkers have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses at a tremendous cost to their families, communities and taxpayers. Despite these laws drug trafficking and addiction have not abated, in fact the level of death, disease and suffering associated with substance abuse is greater than it was in 1973. After twenty-seven years experience has led nearly all to conclude that these laws have been a failure. Governor Pataki was correct in stating: "Today, we can conclude that, however well intentioned, key aspects of those laws are out of step with both the times and the complexities of drug addiction.''
We hope that his pledge to seek bipartisan support for legislative reform means that he no longer seeks to link reform of the Rockefeller drug laws to his desire to eliminate parole for nonviolent felons. The issue deserves to be addressed on its own merits, not as part of a deal. Meaningful reform of the Rockefeller drug laws should include three essential elements:
- Proportionate sentences. Sentences should be proportionate to the crime and culpability of the offender. In order for this to occur, judges must have the ability to sentence those convicted of the most serious drug felonies to a term of imprisonment that may be as long as the sentences now required, but which may be shorter if the circumstances warrant it.
This position has been endorsed by a broad array of state judges, lawyers, treatment providers, criminal justice professionals and faith-based organizations, including the New York State Catholic Conference and the League of Women Voters. Recent polls and surveys demonstrate that the public and most state elected officials support reforming New York's drug sentencing laws.
During the past year both Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have expressed their support for "meaningful" reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We hope this year reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws will be at the top of the legislative agenda and result in the enactment of legislation that will restore fairness and rationality to our approach to substance abuse in New York.