According to a National Public Radio article, the United States imprisons more people than any other country. As a result, more incarcerations and longer sentences often cause dangerous overcrowding in the prison system. It wasn’t always this way.

In 1973, as a response to the country’s mounting anxiety about drug use and abuse, certain laws were put into effect to increase the minimum sentences of those selling or possessing drugs. The laws started in New York with the then governor–Nelson Rockefeller. His political ambitions and 180 degree turn on handling the drug problem began to impact the rest of the country. No longer would drug offenders simply get a “slap on the wrist”. In fact, even low-level drug criminals faced serious time behind bars for their offenses.

Prior to these laws, Rockefeller believed drug rehabilitation, vocational training, and affordable housing would help New York’s drug problem. He saw it as a social issue. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, New York City was dealing with a major drug epidemic. Heroin use skyrocketed. The city had troubles keeping street corners free from junkies and drug dealers. Gangs made some neighborhoods very dangerous. In fact, the homicide rate was much higher than it is today.

Rockefeller quickly changed his stance on drugs, most likely influenced by President Nixon’s declaration of drug abuse being America’s Public Enemy Number One in 1971. In addition, his research of Japan’s zero tolerance approach also played a role.

In Rockefeller’s eyes, the laws he put in place were meant to protect innocent people from those pushing drugs. His new “tough on crime” stance made him appear dedicated to take a no-nonsense approach to handling the country’s drug problem. Also, it made him more favorable to conservative voters.

While his laws quickly passed through the New York State legislature, it did receive some pushback from drug treatment professionals and liberal politicians. They believed these laws put many young minorities–some with no prior convictions–behind bars even if they only had small amounts of a drug. Despite the criticism, similar laws sprouted up across the country.

As a result, the prison system’s population reached record levels. New state and federal prisons were built to house those affected by these laws. Those selling drugs or struggling with addiction now found themselves behind bars for a long time.

What Exactly Were The Rockefeller Drug Laws?

Rockefeller’s belief that more moderate approaches to handling New York’s drug epidemic just weren’t working. He wanted to get control of this problem and felt being significantly stricter on drug laws would discourage others from selling and possessing drugs.

As a result, he pushed for a minimum 15 years to life sentence for even those caught selling small amounts (two ounces) of drugs like heroin, marijuana, or cocaine. This included no chances for plea deals, parole, or probation. A maximum sentence included 25 years to life.

As you could expect, this law changed countless lives and families. While it certainly increased incarcerations, it didn’t impact the state’s drug problem as Rockefeller envisioned. It put some major drug offenders behind bars. It also significantly impacted the lives of individuals who had no prior criminal history–many in lower class and minority neighborhoods. After all, some people cannot control their addictions. Simply threatening them with harsh penalties doesn’t take care of the root causes of their use.

Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms

In the early twenty-first century, New York legislators moderated some of the stiff sentences. For example, in 2004, the 15 years to life penalty was reduced to 8 years in prison for someone without prior convictions. In addition, in 2009, New York removed mandatory minimum sentences. Judges could also choose to mandate probation or drug treatment for those convicted of certain drug offenses.

Whatever your opinion of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, know that addiction is a progressive disease affecting many lives. Some people just don’t have the resources or knowledge to get the help they desperately need. While they may not act within the law, their disease needs treatment if they want to experience true change in their lives. This is why substance abuse treatment is so important for those struggling with addiction.

The National Drug Helpline supports the repealing of Rockefeller Drug Laws and other drug laws that bloat the prison system. We advocate an investment in prevention and education, not punishment. In accordance with our stance, The National Drug Helpline offers the following helplines to aid with treatment, recovery and to deter from potential imprisonment: