End the Rockefeller Drug Laws
New York Times Editorial - 03/10/2009
After 35 years of filling the state’s prisons with drug offenders who needed treatment and disproportionately punishing poor and minority offenders, New York is on the verge of dismantling its infamous Rockefeller drug laws. To get there, Gov. David Paterson and some prosecutors will have to drop their objections to a reasonable provision on second-time offenders.
The Assembly voted last week to restore judicial discretion and end mandatory sentencing for many nonviolent low-level drug crimes. The bill, which has been introduced in the State Senate as well, would limit the longstanding and widely discredited system under which prosecutors decide who goes to jail and for how long.
Once the measure becomes law, courts would be able to sentence many addicts to treatment instead of cramming them into prisons where addiction generally goes untreated.
Republican senators who represent prison districts have long obstructed reforms like these. The latest attempt seems likely to succeed now that Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature — if Assembly lawmakers can broker a deal with the governor and some prosecutors in the state.
The prime sticking point is likely to involve a provision of the Assembly bill that deals with second-time offenders — who make up the largest group of people jailed under the laws. The Assembly bill would do away with mandatory sentences for low-level, second-time offenders who have not committed violent crimes.
Mr. Paterson and his allies in law enforcement believe that would send the wrong message to the communities where drug crimes are committed and to the police officers who have worked hard to make these cases. They also fear that without mandatory sentences, some offenders might ignore treatment sanctions. But sentencing statistics show that judges can be very harsh in such cases.
The Assembly bill provides for judicial discretion for a well-defined group of second-timers while preserving lengthy, mandatory sentences for second-timers with either histories of violence or records of having committed sex crimes or sold drugs to children. The provision protects the public safety by making sure that dangerous offenders go to jail. It allows judges to deal differently with the low-level second-timers who deserve treatment.
This is consistent with drug treatment research, which shows that addicts — many of whom sell to feed their habits — often pass through the system without receiving treatment. That means they often end up back on the streets. The provision also is consistent with the main thrust of the reform effort, which is to restore judicial discretion in drug cases. The Assembly provision deserves to carry the day.