Pubdate: Fri, 08 Feb 2008
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2008 Newsday Inc.
Author: Robert Gangi
Note: Robert Gangi is the executive director of the Correctional 
Association of New York, a nonprofit prison-monitoring and criminal 
justice policy organization.
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


New York's elected officials face two critical challenges in the 2008
legislative session: how to close the $4.4-billion deficit confronting
the state, and how to break political stalemates and enact significant
policy advances. One way they can both save money and show they can
govern is to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws.

Enacted in 1973, when Nelson Rockefeller was governor, the laws
require harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively
small amounts of drugs. The penalties apply without regard to the
circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or
background. Whether the person is a first-time or repeat offender, for
instance, is irrelevant.

The modifications Albany approved in 2004 and '05 did not amount to
real reform. While reducing prison terms slightly, the amendments left
intact the statutes' harshest provisions and didn't address the
serious problems they cause.

As of Jan. 1, there were more than 13,400 drug offenders in New York
State prisons, the vast majority of whom had no history of dangerous
behavior. It cost the state about $1.5 billion to construct the
prisons to house drug offenders. And the operating expense for
confining them comes to about $500 million per year.

Major traffickers usually escape the sanctions of the laws, because
the Rockefeller statutes place the main criterion for culpability on
the weight of the drugs in a person's possession when he or she is
apprehended, not on the actual role played in the narcotics
transaction. Aware of the law's emphasis, drug kingpins rarely carry
narcotics. Teenagers employed as couriers by those kingpins are more
likely to be picked up on the street and charged with a serious felony
for possessing a relatively small amount of drugs.

As a principal weapon of the so-called war against drugs, this statute
results directly in law enforcement agencies focusing on minor
offenders who are the most easily arrested, prosecuted and penalized,
rather than on the drug trade's true profiteers.

The drug laws, moreover, have a harsh and disproportionate impact on
communities of color. The majority of people who use and sell drugs in
New York State and the nation are white. Yet, 90 percent of the people
doing time in New York State prisons for a drug offense are
African-American or Latino. As of the beginning of this year,
African-Americans comprised 58.5 percent of the drug offenders in
state prison; Latinos, 31.5 percent; whites, 8.9 percent.

Remedies are available to address these problems. Many studies have
demonstrated that drug treatment programs are, on the whole, more
successful than imprisonment in reducing drug abuse and crime rates
and in increasing drug offenders' ability to find and hold jobs. The
cost of keeping an inmate in a New York State prison for one year is
$36,835. In comparison, the cost of most drug-free outpatient care
runs between $2,700-$4,500 per person per year, and the cost of
residential drug treatment is $17,000-$21,000.

Although alternative programs are more effective and less expensive
than imprisonment, mandatory-sentencing laws limit the court's ability
to use them. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice's new drug
diversion program is a step in the right direction, except that judges
and not prosecutors should decide which offenders take part in such

As long as the Rockefeller drug laws remain on the books, a governor
and legislature of more than three decades ago will have more to say
about the outcomes of today's narcotics cases than the judges who sit
on the bench today and hear all the evidence presented.

The state's current leaders can reverse the terrible mistake of their
long-ago predecessors by removing the stain of these laws from New
York's penal code. If they are wary of political liabilities, they can
seek insulation and take courage from the widespread support that the
public has shown for reforming the Rockefeller drug laws.

This past June, the United States Conference of Mayors, which
represents the mayors of large cities, unanimously approved a
resolution stating that the war on drugs has failed.

The resolution also condemned mandatory minimum sentences and the
incarceration of drug offenders, and called for more funding for
treatment programs.

By adopting the Rockefeller repeal, the governor and legislative
leaders will achieve substantial government savings - more than $200
million annually, according to a Correctional Association analysis -
demonstrating to a skeptical press and public that Albany can govern
in sensible and strategic ways to deal with its serious fiscal
problems. They would also advance a constructive policy reform that
will result in the reduction of drug-trade-related crime and the
restoration of fairness to the administration of justice.
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