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Change We Can Believe in: NY's Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Takes Effect

Jail for drug offenses is no longer mandatory in New York: judges can send people suffering from addiction into a range of programs, such as treatment and mental health services.
 
 
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This week, two essential components of Rockefeller Drug Law reform go into effect: restoration of judicial discretion and resentencing eligibility for some people currently incarcerated under the failed laws. The enactment of these hard-won reforms signals a major shift in New York's approach to drug abuse and dependency.

By restoring discretion, incarceration for drug offenses is no longer mandatory: judges once more have the ability to send individuals suffering from addiction into a range of programs, such as treatment and mental health services. In addition, nearly 1,500 people currently incarcerated under the old laws for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses can now petition the court for resentencing. If approved by a judge, many of these people will finally be released.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated extremely harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although intended to target "kingpins," most of the people incarcerated under the laws were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many had no prior criminal records. The laws marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug abuse and dependency through the criminal justice system, instead of through health-oriented systems. Unfortunately, the Rockefeller Drug Laws became the template for implementing the nation's drug war.

At a ceremony this week marking enactment of the reforms, Gov. David Paterson noted that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were an utter failure. "Families were broken, money was wasted and we continued to wrestle with the statewide drug problem," he said.

And he's right. New York spends more than $525 million per year to incarcerate people for drug offenses - 66% have never been to prison before, and 80% have never been convicted of a violent felony. It costs approximately $45,000 to incarcerate a person for one year inNew York, while treatment costs an average of $15,000 per year and is proven to be 15 times more effective at reducingcrime and recidivism. What's more, 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 sales are approximately equal among racial groups. But while blacks and Latinos make up only 34% ofNew YorkState'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.

Since passage of the reforms, advocates and legal and human service providers have prepared for implementation. They've focused first on resentencing and community reentry for thousands of people who have served long, inhumane prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Legal aid and public defender agencies notified incarcerated people of their eligibility for resentencing, while hundreds of human agencies around the state have volunteered to provide support to those released from prison under the new laws. InNew York Cityalone, more than 100 human service agencies have agreed to provide housing, job training, drug treatment, and more to people returning from prison--even before funding has been allocated for these services. These are just a few examples of the broad-based commitment, across multiple sectors, to make Rockefeller reform work.

Shreya Mandal, a mitigation specialist with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, is coordinating reentry plans for dozens of currently incarcerated people. As a social worker and lawyer, she understands the challenges and opportunities resulting from these historic changes. "Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by both addiction and a harsh and racist sentencing scheme," she said.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws have come to represent the failures of the U.S. war on drugs -policies which are ineffective, racist, wasteful and unjust. With a shift to a health-oriented approach, New York could become a model for new direction in drug policies, based in science, compassion, health and human rights. Now that's change to believe in.

Gabriel Sayegh directs the State Organizing and Policy Project at the Drug Policy Alliance.
 
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