Democratic control of NY state senate makes reform of Rockefeller Law more likely

As Democrats captured a majority in the state senate for the first time since 1964, beating out Republican incumbents in two districts, the new political landscape has many reformers anticipating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence longstanding legislation.

“If the governor puts a serious proposal for repeal or sweeping reform on the table it’s likely to be taken up by the Democratic senate,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a drug policy group.

Enacted in 1973 by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, the tough on crime statues established mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, limiting judicial discretion on the length and type of sentences handed out. Last year more than 20% of new inmates, or roughly 12,000 prisoners in the New York state correctional system were committed for drug-related offenses. Over the last 35 years, hundreds of thousands of offenders have been sentenced under these laws.

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In 2004, in response to questions about both the laws’ efficacy , and their ability to distinguish between kingpins and addicts requiring treatment, the Drug Law Reform Act was introduced. Yet, while some mandatory minimums were lowered, the lack of judicial discretion remained unchanged.

This past May, on the 35th anniversary of the laws’ enactment, public hearings convened by six assembly committees reopened the question of their reform. With a Democratic majority senate around the corner, some anti-Rockefeller groups are looking forward not only in the laws’ repeal, but also to a new approach to drug-related sentencing.

“The changes in Albany are something that we have anticipated for some time. There’s near universal agreement that they’ll be scrapped. The question is what type of drug policy should New York State have to replace the Rockefeller drug regime,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, and group that advocates for the laws’ repeal.

The May hearing’s emphasis on drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration is indicative, said Sayegh, of what will likely replace the Rockefeller laws.

“A public health approach to drug policy might be an indication of where we are going nationally. Health providers have been very vocal that using incarceration as a response to addiction is not only patently wrong, but immoral.”

It is also expensive. In 2001, the cost to New York State per inmate was nearly $37,000, or 35% higher than the national average, according to the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections. Critics of the laws anticipate the state’s fiscal emergency will encourage many lawmakers to re-examine less costly alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction-treatment.

“We think that the time is more right that ever for moving on reform given the state’s fiscal crisis,” said Gangi. “Repealing the Rockefeller drug laws would save the state millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars.”

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Ria Julien is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked on prison issues as a book editor and organizer.

About Sandeep Junnarkar

Sandeep Junnarkar is the founder and editorial director of Family Lives Behind Bars.