30th Anniversary of New York
May 8, 2003 marks the 30th anniversary of New York's controversial Rockefeller drug laws, the state's harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders. Political leaders like Governor George Pataki, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have been pledging for years but have repeatedly failed to agree on a reasonable plan to reform the controversial drug laws, enacted in 1973 by then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, that impose severe sentences of up to 15 years to life on low level drug offenders.
"This is really a testimony to the lack of political will in Albany to do the right thing on this issue," says Deborah Small, Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach at Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that has spearheaded activist media campaigns in opposition to the Rockefeller drug laws. "It's not as if the state's political leaders who have been continually promising to reform the drug laws don't know how to pass legislation when it's the politically expedient thing for them to do. We know better. They rushed through the law eliminating the commuter tax, a decision that really hurt New York City. They should just as efficiently pass drug law reform to help New York."
Major actions are taking place to protest the anniversary of the Rockefeller drug laws, including a demonstration with high profile public figures in front of Governor Pataki's midtown Manhattan office. Critics call New York's harsh drug sentencing laws ineffective, racially biased and wasteful because they ensnare the lowest level offenders who are often poor, black, Latino and/or suffering from drug addiction which would be much more effectively rehabilitated by less expensive alternatives to incarceration such as community-based drug treatment.
Deborah Small says, "We are in the middle of a tremendous state budget crisis right now. New Yorkers are facing cutbacks in education, public services and state jobs in the midst of an economic recession. Should we continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to warehouse non-violent drug offenders instead of getting them into drug treatment? Rockefeller reform legislation was passed last year by the State Assembly that would save taxpayers $164 million dollars and deliver the much needed reform that the public supports. Does another generation need to grow up before these draconian laws are reversed?"
Black and Latino community leaders have protested the racially discriminatory impact of the enforcement of these laws, because 94% of the people sentenced under them come from their communities although drug use is consistent in the same proportions across racial and ethnic lines. The only group that openly opposes reform of New York's mandatory drug sentences is the state's prosecutors who benefit from the transfer of power from judges to prosecutors under the Rockefeller drug laws.