For Immediate Release
Tony Newman (646) 335-5384 or
Gabriel Sayegh (646) 335-2264
New York State Lawmakers Reach Historic Agreement to Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws
Legislation Would Restore Judicial Discretion, Expand Treatment, Reform Sentences, Provide Retroactive Relief
ALBANY, New York - Today, New York Governor David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon
Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith announced a deal that
would, finally, enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The
agreement, still being finalized, would restore judicial discretion in
most drug cases, expand drug treatment and alternatives to
incarceration, provide retroactive sentencing relief for people serving
low-level offenses, and more effectively utilize criminal justice and
public health resources to build safer, healthier communities.
"The deal announced today, if enacted, would finally address some of
the most egregious injustices and waste perpetrated under the
Rockefeller Drug Laws," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director at the
Drug Policy Alliance. "The Governor and Legislature clearly understand
that New Yorkers can no longer afford the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Incarceration costs approximately $45,000 per year, while treatment and
alternatives to incarceration cost far less and are far more effective
at reducing recidivism and restoring the health and well being of our
communities. With this agreement, New York takes its first big step
towards advancing a public health and safety approach to drug policy in
"Lives are destroyed by long prison terms for low-level drug
offenses, and prison doesn't address addiction," said Anthony Papa,
communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12
years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki
granted him clemency. "As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on a
nonviolent drug offense, I know how important it is for those who have
drug problems to get help instead of a prison cell."
Earlier this month, the Assembly passed more significant reform
legislation which started the negotiations for reform. Assembly bill
6085, sponsored by long-time reform champion Assemblyman Jeff Aubry
(D-Queens), chairman of the Corrections Committee and Speaker Silver,
was even more comprehensive than the deal announced by lawmakers today.
Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), chairman of the Codes
Committee, introduced similar legislation in the Senate. The Governor,
the Senate and the Assembly then worked to finalize a meaningful
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh
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 are convicted of low-level,
nonviolent offenses, and many of them have no prior criminal record.
Approximately 12,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York
State prisons, representing nearly 21 percent of the prison population,
and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Nearly 90% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino, representing
some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.
Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws
continue to deny people serving under the more punitive sentences to
apply for shorter terms, and do not increase the power of judges to
place people with drug use problems into treatment programs. After the
reforms of 2004, more people were sent to prison for Rockefeller Drug
Law offenses than in previous years.
Reforms of the laws have been called for by nearly every group in
the state, including the Sentencing Commission, District Attorney's
like David Soares, the drug treatment community, public health and
criminal justice experts and many more.
Advocates have long held that for any proposal to be meaningful, it
must include restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases;
expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community based
drug treatment; fair and equitable sentencing reforms; and retroactive
sentencing relief for people serving unjust sentences under the
Rockefeller Drug Laws. The agreement announced today appears to include
Today's announcement comes just two months after drug policy experts and stakeholders convened at the New York Academy of Medicine to
develop a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The
historic conference was attended by representatives of the Governor's
office; the Speaker and members of the Assembly; leadership from the
State Senate; members of the New York City Council; and hundreds of
doctors, lawyers, advocates, people in recovery, drug treatment
specialists, criminal justice experts and more. At that meeting, public
health experts, district attorneys, former and current police and
community members met with treatment providers, doctors, formerly
incarcerated people and people in recovery to begin outlining more
effective drug policies.
The Legislature and Governor now have to finalize the deal before it
becomes law. "The announcement is important, but it's critical they
enact this into law," said Papa. "For 36 years, we've used
incarceration to address drug addiction and poverty. It's time for a
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