False Claims on Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Lead to Credibility Gap for Prosecutors

A new report released this week by the Legal Aid Society of New York shows that the changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2004 and 2005 have been a huge success-- saving taxpayers tens of millions and producing remarkably low levels of recidivism of people who have been re-sentenced and released from prison.

On average, people who were re-sentenced and released early from prison as a result of the '04 and '05 drug law reforms have an overall recidivism rate of 8.5 percent, while the overall rate of recidivism rate for people released in the same period is nearly 40 percent -- these staggering figures show that not only do the reforms work, but they work remarkably well.

For decades, New Yorkers said "NO" to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and Albany finally took notice. Building on the limited reforms of 2004 and 2005, Governor Paterson enacted real reform of the laws in 2009, including expanding treatment instead of incarceration for low level drug offenses, returning discretion to judges, and allowing for over 1,000 people incarcerated on low-level, nonviolent drug offenses to petition the court for resentencing. The changes were hailed across the country and the world -- after nearly 40 years, New York was finally taking a new, health-based approach to drug policy.

Despite mountains of evidence showing the abject failure of the criminal justice approach to drug policy -- characterized by the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws -- some prosecutors refuse to take "no" for answer. District attorney's, resistant to change and apparently impervious to facts, have launched a now-familiar campaign claiming that reforms to the Rockefeller laws will lead to disaster. During every step of the process -- from 2004 on through the historic reforms of 2009-- some prosecutors worked to block the reforms and their implementation, promising that real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws would result in chaos on the streets. One prominent prosecutor, in a letter to legislators, even suggested that the reforms would "pave the road to hell."

The Legal Aid Society's report analyzes data related to the 2004 and 2005 reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, where over 1,000 incarcerated people became eligible for resentencing and release. The findings illustrate that New York's judges are exercising their discretion on a case by case basis, proving to be an effective screen that protects the community from new crime. The recidivism rate for those people who were re-sentenced and have been out of prison for three years is approximately three times better than that produced by the highly praised DOCS Shock program. Over five years after the first round of reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York has paved not a road to hell, but a road to recovery: taxpayers have thus far saved over $40 million, and thousands of individuals and their families are now rebuilding their lives.

"The process by which judges exercise discretion who should be resentenced has shown to be effective," said William Gibney, an attorney and co-author of the report. "The majority of those re-sentenced and released under the drug law reform have not committed new crimes. Despite the claims of dangerous consequences by District Attorneys in opposingre-sentencing petitions, the people released so far under the drug law re-sentencing provisions have proven to pose a low risk to the community."

In light of the evidence presented by Gibney and the Legal Aid Society in their report, the claims made by some prosecutors -- that disaster will result from drug law reform, and that judges are incapable of making sound decisions-- are ridiculous. These bizarre claims are out of touch with reality and are being increasingly exposed for what they are-- politically-driven hogwash from a special interest group who benefitted from the unjust status quo known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

"We had nearly 40 years of prosecutor-based discretion, and what did we get? Thousands of lives destroyed by long prison terms for low-level drug offenses," said Anthony Papa, who know a little abou the Rockefeller Drug Laws -- he spent over a decade in prison on a first time, nonviolent drug charge, before Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. "I know how important it is for those who have drug problems to get help instead of a prison cell. Prison doesn't address addiction, and that's why New York should be commended for finally embarking on a health-based approach."

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