In April 2009, the New York State Senate voted to significantly reform the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws after years of advocacy on the part of families, formerly incarcerated people, and community organizations.

Drop the Rock is building on these advances by expanding its proposals for reform.  Our new campaign aims to reduce the harm that incarceration has on individuals, families and communities in New York  by decreasing the populations of people in prison and the bed capacity of the prison system.

    • Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws- Though the reforms we helped to win earlier this year are significant, thousands of people will still go to prison for minor drug offenses every year.
    • Increase Use of Work Release- In 1994, over 27,000 people in prison participated in work release.  Today, fewer than 2,500 are enrolled.
    • Decrease Rate of Reincarceration for Technical Parole Violations- In 2009, over 8,200 people were sent to prison because they violated parole – like missing a meeting with an officer or breaking curfew – not for committing new crimes.
    • Increase Rate at Which People in Prison are Granted Parole- Parole Board policy often denies individuals parole release due to the nature of their crime, no matter how positive their institutional record.  This practice delays the release of thousands of people every year.
    • Expand Merit Time Eligibility- Merit time, which allows a person in prison to earn time off of their sentence for completing programs, is not available to people convicted of violent offenses.  This policy delays release for thousands of people every year.
    • Close Underutilized Prisons- New York’s prison population has decreased by over 14,500 people in the past decade.  Even after recent prison closures, there are still almost 4,000 empty beds funded by taxpayers.  Closing these beds could save NY millions of dollars this year.
    • Reinvest Savings into Alternative, Reentry, Prevention and In-Prison Programs- Investment in communities is much more effective in improving public safety and the quality of people’s lives than incarceration.

What are the Rockefeller Drug Laws?

  • Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws require lengthy prison terms for the possession or sale of a relatively small amount of drugs.
  • There are nearly 12,000 people in New York’s prisons incarcerated under the drug laws, most of them minor offenders with no history of violent behavior.
  • It costs New York $520 million a year to imprison drug offenders.
  • Almost 90% of the people locked up in New York for drug offenses are African American or Latino, despite research showing that the majority of people who use and sell drugs are white.
  • Research shows that drug treatment is less expensive than imprisonment and more successful in reducing drug-related crime.
  • Repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws would save the fiscally strapped state approximately $270 million per year.

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 free helplines to aid with treatment, recovery and to deter from potential imprisonment:

Rockefeller Drug Law Facts

The Rockefeller Drug Laws have not succeeded in making our communities safer.  Today, up to one million New Yorkers use drugs and an estimated 500,000 are addicts or abusers.  Drugs are cheaper and more readily available to the public than they were 20 years ago.  NY’s highest court acknowledged that the “harsh mandatory treatment of drug offenders…has failed to deter drug trafficking or to control the epidemic of drug abuse in society, and has resulted in the incarceration of many offenders whose crimes arose out of their own addiction and for whom the costs of imprisonment would have been better spent on treatment and rehabilitation.”

Violent crime was increasing until the mid 1990’s, at the same time that significantly more drug offenders were being imprisoned. Then, violent crime began dropping dramatically in localities across the nation, regardless of their policing tactics, the harshness of their drug laws, or the extent to which the laws were enforced, all of which vary from state to state and community to community.  There is evidence that drug treatment reduces crime associated with the narcotics trade more effectively than incarceration: a 1997 study by RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center concluded that treatment, significantly less costly than imprisonment, reduces 15 times more serious crime than mandatory minimum sentences.

According to official statistics from the NYS Dept of Correctional Services (DOCS), drug law offenders are overwhelmingly non-violent. Nearly 80% of drug offenders in prison have never been convicted of a violent felony; about half have never even been arrested for one.

Of the over 9,000 drug offenders sent to state prison in 1998, only about 50 were convicted under the most serious provision of the drug laws.  Nearly 60% of the drug offenders in NYS prisons today were convicted of selling or possessing only small drug amounts—amounts that are classified under the 3 lowest felony categories.  The vast majority of offenders convicted of selling are not kingpins or in high-level drug trafficking positions.  Moreover, many minor dealers are drug abusers who sell to support their own habits. A Manhattan Institute report co-authored by criminologist John J. DiIulio, Jr. concluded that, far from addressing the root causes of why people sell drugs, “the main effect of imprisoning drug sellers…is merely to open the market for another seller.”

Why is this the case? The main criterion for guilt under the laws is not the offenders’ role in narcotics transactions, but the amount of drugs in their possession at the time of arrest.  Drug kingpins rarely carry narcotics; they hire other people to transport drugs for them.  These “foot soldiers” get caught literally holding the bag.  The drug laws’ weight provision provides an incentive to police and prosecutors to concentrate on minor dealers and users who are on the street with drugs in their possession, rather than on the drug trade’s major profiteers.

Even if the drug laws were repealed, judges would have the authority to sentence drug offenders to prison.  Judges would make decisions after weighing the views of the prosecution and the defense.  Mandatory sentencing schemes do not abolish discretion; they remove it from the judge’s hands and place it in the prosecutor’s office.  Whoever sets the charge—the district attorney—determines the outcome of the case.  In America’s adversarial criminal justice system, these laws stack the deck in favor of the prosecution.  The primary reason the NYS Association of DAs aggressively opposes even the most modest proposals to amend the drug laws is that such measures would diminish their power.  Requiring the consent of prosecutors to divert offenders distorts the American criminal justice system.

A recent Legal Action Center report revealed that in 2000, judges were unable to divert approximately 8,700 drug offenders to treatment who would have been eligible for diversion under Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry’s (D-Queens) repeal bill (A-2823), and almost 5,000 drug offenders under the Assembly reform bill (A-8888; The Assembly reform bill does not allow diversion for offenders who have any history of violence).  There are over 21,000 drug offenders incarcerated in NYS prisons today; in 2000, over 44% of all people sent to state prison were drug offenders—the vast majority of whom were minor drug offenders with no history of violence.  It is incontrovertible that the drug laws have handcuffed judges, filled our prisons with minor drug offenders, and denied sufficient alternatives to offenders who need help.

The possibility for sentencing disparities exists whether judges or DAs have discretion.  However, while judges make decisions in public that are subject to review by higher courts, DAs make decisions behind closed doors with no chance for public or legal review.  As Justice James Yates of the NY County Supreme Court stated: “Under current law, that determination [of what sentence is given to a particular defendant] is made by an assistant district attorney who is not bound by written public guidelines or standards, is not compelled to hear arguments in favor of reduction, is not required to explain or justify the decision, is not held accountable by the public or through judicial processes and the decision is not reviewable by any court . . . . [In contrast], in a system where a judge has authority to set sentences, there are proceedings on a record in public, with advocacy on both sides and a decision by a neutral party who must explain his or her decision and can be held accountable.”

Although government studies show that the majority of drug users and sellers are white, 94% of drug offenders in state prisons are African-American and Latino.  Police generally ignore middle and upper-class areas where the majority of people buy and use drugs behind closed doors.   As Chicago Police Department Narcotics Division Chief stated in 1990, “There is as much cocaine in the Stock Exchange as there is in the black community.  But those guys are harder to catch.  Those deals are done in office buildings, in somebody’s home, and there is not the violence associated with it that there is in the black community.  But the guy standing on the corner, he’s almost got a sign on his back.  These guys are just arrestable.”

While the drug laws do benefit upstate, rural, mainly white areas, they drain resources, funding and political power from poor NYC communities of color.  The need for economic development in depressed upstate areas has been met by the construction and staffing of prisons.  Since 1982, NY has opened 38 prisons, all in rural areas represented by Republican State Senators.  93% of NYS inmates are housed in prisons located in Republican Senate Districts.  These prisons receive more than $1.1 billion annually to cover operating expenses and employ almost 30,000 people.  Although the vast majority of prisons are located in mainly white, upstate areas, over 65% of the state prison population comes from a handful of poor NYC communities.  The US Census Bureau records inmates as residents of the town where they are incarcerated, not where they are originally from, where their families still reside.  NY has thus transferred thousands of people of color from its inner cities to upstate areas and, along with them, the government funding and electoral influence that are based on district population.

Even though the so-called war on drugs has been “fought” for decades and costs billions of dollars each year, illegal drugs are easily available, substance abuse remains one of the country’s most difficult problems, and prison recidivism rates for drug offenders hold steady.  Ill-advised drug war policies like the Rockefeller Laws have done more harm than good: they ruin lives, tear apart families, divest political power and funding from poor communities of color, distort the criminal justice system, and skew government priorities toward prisons and away from education and alternatives to incarceration.  These alternatives are far less expensive and more effective in reducing crime than prison.  Former NYS Court of Appeals Chief Judge Charles Breitel stated that the Rockefeller Drug Laws’ “pragmatic value might well be questioned, since more than half a century of increasingly severe sanctions has failed to stem, if indeed it has not caused, a parallel crescendo of drug abuse.”

Incarcerating parents for long prison terms does not reduce the chance that their children will use or sell drugs.  In fact, disruption of families by incarceration greatly increases the probability of children from such families getting into trouble with the law.  The best way to raise the next generation of drug abusers is to put a generation of fathers and mothers in prison.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws have eliminated the historic and proper role of judges, as neutral arbiters, to balance appropriate factors in the process of achieving justice.  They have also proven ineffective and wasteful.  In the interest of justice, efficiency and public safety, policy makers should repeal the drug laws and restore judicial discretion.

Governor Pataki’s drug law reform proposal (S-4237) allows for judicial discretion in drug cases only to a very limited degree; the Assembly reform bill (A-8888) applies judicial discretion to a broader range of cases, but includes far too many exceptions.  The REPEAL BILL (A-2823) introduced by Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens), Chair of the Committee on Corrections, is the only proposal that would restore sentencing discretion to trial judges in all drug cases, enable full retroactive review of sentences for prisoners currently incarcerated under the laws, significantly expand alternatives to incarceration (including education, drug treatment and job training programs), and reduce sentence lengths for drug offenses.  Passing the Aubry repeal bill (A-2823) is a critical first step in reversing a costly and ineffective prison expansion policy.