A New Approach to Drugs Would Save New York Hundreds of Millions of Dollars

While New York reels from the most severe budget crisis since the Great Depression, Gov. David A. Paterson and the legislature are scrambling to close ever-expanding deficits. "We're not going to get out of this quagmire we've built until we reduce our spending," said the governor during a Nov. 12 press conference.

Precisely. So let's stop spending over $500 million every year on ineffective and wasteful policies like the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Rockefeller Drug Laws represent not just bad, expensive policy, but a misguided and ineffective regime for addressing drug use and addiction -- health issues, not criminal issues. Imagine if we incarcerated people for being addicted to cigarettes or for having diabetes.

Passed in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate harsh, mandatory minimum prison terms for even low-level drug offenses; people convicted of first- and second-time drug offenses often receive eight to 20 years in prison. The laws are marked by shocking, inexcusable racial disparities -- more than 90 percent of the people incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws are black or Latino, even though whites use and sell illegal drugs at approximately equal, and often higher, rates.

Contrary to their stated purpose, these laws do little to reduce the availability of drugs or drug use in New York. They did not stop the crack epidemic of the 1980s. They are completely incapable of stemming the accidental drug overdose epidemic hitting New York City and Long Island today. And they have turned the Department of Corrections into the largest, most costly and ineffective treatment provider in the state.

The state spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year on policies that both criminal justice and public health experts -- as well as the majority of New Yorkers, according to the polls -- say don't work. It costs over $35,000 a year to keep someone in prison. When policing and court costs are factored in, that number rises to nearly $50,000. The governor and legislature should do the math: there are nearly 14,000 people incarcerated under these laws. Prisons constitute the most ineffective and expensive mechanism to address drug abuse. Meanwhile, spending on community-based drug treatment is pitifully low, and New York's treatment system faces even further cuts in this economic crisis, even though community-based treatment is a fraction of the cost and demonstrably more effective than incarceration.

Recent DOC figures show that the slight reforms made to the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2004 and 2005 saved the state over $90 million -- no small sum. That figure doesn't include additional savings associated with related parole reforms. Meanwhile, crime in the state has gone down.

Savings from Rockefeller Drug Law repeal would be far more dramatic: conservative estimates are around a half-billion dollars, though savings would likely be much higher once associated court and policing cost reductions are factored in.

With crisis comes opportunity, and for a governor who as Senate Minority Leader engaged in civil disobedience in protest of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws, the opportunity is to promote a smarter, more effective and cost-efficient approach to drug policy in our state: a portion of the savings from repeal should be reinvested into prevention, community treatment, harm reduction, alternative-to-incarceration programs and related services. The state would still save hundreds of millions in the short term, untold billions over the long term, and we could finally stop trying to incarcerate our way out of this health problem.

This process is already under way -- earlier this year, the Assembly held historic hearings, convened jointly by six Assembly committees, to begin outlining what a public health approach to drug policy would entail. When thinking of cuts, the governor should follow President-elect Barack Obama's fiscal advice: cut what doesn't work, keep what does. Given the abysmal failure of the "war on drugs" -- both in New York and nationally -- a public health approach is both long overdue and fiscally prudent.

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