Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

Plan puts emphasis on treating drug addiction while saving money

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, Chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, announced that the Assembly passed a plan to reform New York’s ineffective and outdated Rockefeller drug laws, giving judges the discretion to sentence some non-violent offenders to compulsory drug treatment programs instead of prison.

The plan could save New York as much as $164 million annually, reducing prison crowding while cracking down on violent offenders and treating the causes of drug-related crime.

"I hope we’ve finally learned after 30 years that if we want to fight drugs and drug crimes, we first have to fight addiction," Assemblyman Dinowitz said. "Treatment is a much more effective tool than incarceration in a lot of circumstances, and this measure gives the criminal justice system the power to find the most appropriate sentence. Our goal should be for as many people as possible to be productive taxpayers and citizens. That is why the time to act on real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws is now. Treatment for substance abuse will make a difference in the lives of thousands of New Yorkers and their families and save the state millions of dollars."

Drug treatment is 15 times more effective than mandatory-minimum sentences in reducing serious crimes committed by drug offenders, according to a Rand Corporation study. Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman has estimated that graduates of drug court diversion programs commit two-thirds fewer crimes than offenders who are simply incarcerated.

The Assembly bill (A.7078-A) would:

  • give greater discretion in recommending drug treatment as an alternative to prison;
  • create a new drug-related Class B-II felony for certain lower-level sale or possession cases involving relatively small amounts of controlled substances; and
  • give judges more flexibility in sentencing individuals on Class B and lower felonies.

"New York has made great strides in reducing crime," Assemblyman Dinowitz said. "If we also make a concerted effort to fight substance abuse and addiction – the root causes of most crimes – we can bring crime levels down even further."

The Rockefeller drug laws – first enacted in 1973 – are infamous for their harsh and inflexible mandatory-minimum sentences. The law has also been criticized for having a disproportionate impact on minorities.

"Thousands of non-violent people are locked up each year for possessing small amounts of controlled substances. That’s no way to help them get out from under the yoke of addiction," Assemblyman Dinowitz stated. "Many of these low-level offenders would benefit greatly from monitored treatment, giving them a real chance to break their drug dependency and succeed in life."

With these reforms, prosecutors and judges will be able to order certain felony drug offenders whose non-violent crimes resulted from drug abuse to treatment programs instead of prison. Prosecutors would first evaluate whether or not a non-violent drug offender should be diverted from prison to drug treatment. During that evaluation, the court wouldn’t be able to take any action. After the evaluation, the judge would make the final determination on whether an offender is sentenced to mandatory drug treatment or prison.

"This plan gives us many more tools to fight drug addiction and reduce crime," according to Assemblyman Dinowitz. "Everyone will benefit. Addicts will be able to get treatment, the court system will be able to concentrate on more serious offenders, and taxpayers will be safer and save money."

Minority families in New York City have been disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller drug laws. "Almost every person – 94 percent – incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws are African-American or Latino, despite the fact that all races use drugs at about the same rate. Every New Yorker deserves fairness and justice, and we have to make sure they get it," Dinowitz said.

In addition, Assemblyman Dinowitz noted that the Latino and African-American communities have been disproportionately impacted by the spread of drug-related diseases through the sharing of needles. "Reforming the Rockefeller drug laws will also help us address the twin epidemics of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS," he said.

Recognizing the deadly connection between the drug trade and firearms, the new legislation imposes a mandatory five-year prison sentence on anyone convicted of possessing a loaded handgun with the intent to use it while selling or attempting to sell drugs. The plan also retains life sentences for drug kingpins who engage in major drug trafficking.

"This reform will give us the ability to deal with drug use and drug crimes fairly, quickly, and, most important, effectively," Assemblyman Dinowitz said. "We’ll finally be able to fight drugs and crime – instead of the victims of addiction and poverty."