Transforming Drug Laws in the United States: From Retributive to Restorative Justice


The Facts

Rockefeller Drug Laws Information Sheet
Prepared by Aaron D. Wilson, Associate Director, PRDI

Brief History

In May of 1973, New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through the state legislature a set of stringent anti-drug laws. Among the most severe in the nation, the purpose of these laws was and is to deter citizens from using or selling drugs and to punish and isolate from society those who were not deterred. "It was thought that rehabilitative efforts had failed; that the epidemic of drug abuse could be quelled only by the threat of inflexible, and therefore certain, exceptionally severe punishment."1

The new drug laws, which have since become known as the "Rockefeller Drug Laws" established mandatory prison sentences for the unlawful possession and sale of controlled substances keyed to the weight of the drug involved. Generally, the statutes require judges to impose a sentence of 15-years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces, or possessing four ounces of "narcotic drug" (typically cocaine or heroin).

In 1977 The Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluations, a partnership between the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and The Drug Abuse Council, Inc., issued a report2 that was highly critical of the Rockefeller laws. The Committee found that heroin use and heroin-related crime (the major drug concerns at the time) was as widespread in the middle of 1976 as prior to the enactment of the Rockefeller laws in 1973. Despite the expenditure of $76 million and the appointment of 49 additional judges to handle cases under the new law, it was described as a dismal failure.

That same year legislators removed marijuana from the list of substances covered by the Rockefeller Drug Laws, decriminalizing its use and simple possession under 7/8 oz. They were concerned over the large amount of criminal justice resources and prison space being used for marijuana offenders. They felt that criminal prosecution and incarceration were inappropriate penalties for mere possession and use of marijuana. 3

By 1979, in response to extensive criticism, the legislature had amended the laws to increase the amount of drugs needed to trigger the 15-year to life sentence for both sale and possession. In 1988, concern over "crack" cocaine led to a lowering of the weight threshold for cocaine possession to enable the arrest and prosecution of people possessing small amounts of the drug. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have remained essentially unchanged since then. 4

The Consequences

Prepared by Aaron D. Wilson, Associate Director, PRDI
Prison population

Between 1980 and 1992, New York's prison population has tripled from about 20,000 to almost 62,000 (in 1973 the state's prison population was approximately 10,000). The State Assembly's Ways and Means Committee projects that the State prison population will grow to 71,300 by the end of the 1998-99 fiscal year, and to 73,100 by the end of 2001-02. Together with the Second Felony Offender Law, also passed in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws have contributed significantly to the overall growth of the NYS prison population.5
The percentage of the prison population incarcerated for drug offenses has been increasing since 1973, the year the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted, with particularly sharp increases during the 1980's. These mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies have increased the percentage of convicted drug offenders who receive prison sentences. As a consequence, the NYS prison population has changed from one in which 9% were serving time for drug felonies (1980) to 32.2% (1997).6
Since 1981, the State has added about 40,000 beds to its prison system, at an average construction cost of $100,000 each, for a total capital expense, not counting debt service, of approximately $4 billion. 7 Despite these increases, the NYS prison system remains severely overcrowded, forcing prison officials to double bunk or double cell approximately 9,000 inmates. 8
Financial costs

Since the 1982-83 State fiscal year, the share of State General Fund spending going towards the funding of the NYS prison system more than doubled, from approximately 10% to fully 25% of the state's General Fund State Operations Budget.9
As of December 31, 1997, there were 8,880 drug offenders in NYS prisons under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. According the Correctional Association of New York, it costs an estimated $265 million dollars to pay for these prisoners to be incarcerated. There were an additional 12,102 drug offenders in NYS prisons under the Second Felony Offender Law, costing an estimated $360 million per year. There were a total of 22,670 drug offenders in the NYS prison system, representing 33% of the total prison population. In 1980 drug offenses represented only 9% of prison commitments. 10
Since 1989 the yearly budget for the State University of New York (SUNY) has dropped from a little more than $1.3 billion to around $800 million. In the same period, annual spending on prisons in New York has increased from a little less than $1 billion to $1.7 billion.11
Racial disparities

In 1997, whites constituted 5.3 percent of the total population of drug felons currently in prison in New York; blacks and Latinos constituted 94.2 percent.12 Among whites committed to prison in 1994, 16% were convicted of a drug offense, among blacks 45% were committed for a drug offense, and among Latinos 59% were committed for a drug offense.13 As of 1996, Blacks and Latinos made up 23% of the state's general population, but constituted over 85% of the people indicted for drug felonies, and 85% of its overall prison population.14
Effects on women

Women, especially black and Latina women, are particularly affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Incarcerated women in New York are more likely than men to be drug offenders. In New York in 1990, 61.2% of all female prisoners were committed for a drug offense, compared to 32.2% of men. 15
The rate of growth in new court commitments between January, 1987 and December, 1989 was approximately three times greater for women than for men, 98.9% for females versus 33.5% for men. In the same time period drug commitments for females rose 211%, and rose 82% for males. Over the same three year period, African-American women on average accounted for 46.1% of the new court commitment population, Latina women 36.3%, and whites 17.5%.16

Jayne Bigelsen, former Director of Legislative Affairs for the New York City Bar Association

The Response

Prepared by Aaron D. Wilson, Associate Director, PRDI

On January 7, 2009, New York Governor David Patterson called for Rockefeller Drug Law reform in his State of the State address.  This speech included the following:

“Since I got here in 1985, I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws...We still have to expand treatment services; we have to give judges the opportunity to put low level offenders into treatment, and we have to make sure that our prisons are housing the most egregious of our drug policy offenders.

I am looking forward to the end of the month when I will receive the report of the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform. Then I would like to peruse it with my partners in the Legislature so we can find some workable and sensible ways to separate addiction from criminality and to keep our children and our streets away from drugs.”

This speech was in part inspired by a campaign operating under the name "Drop the Rock".  On March 25, 2009, hundreds of New Yorkers rallied in front of Gov. David Paterson's office.  Their protest highlighted that the laws dole out mandatory sentences for minor infractions and disproportionately affect communities of color, 90 percent of those jailed under its auspices are black or Latino.

The New York Times reports that with the support of a Democratic state assembly and senate, Governor Paterson has reached an agreement to dismantle the drug laws. As a state senator, Paterson protested against the drug laws at the offices of then-Governor George Pataki and was arrested for his efforts.Protesters including Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church urged the governor to grant judges the authority to offer drug treatment instead of jail time.