Dropping the rock

By Michelle Chen Feb 05, 2009

This week, New York took a decisive step toward reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws—the notorious mandatory-minimum sentencing rules that have driven the mass incarceration of people of color over the past generation. Despite some marginal reforms in recent years, the state’s prisons remain packed with thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, many of them imprisoned for extremely low-level offenses. About nine in ten drug offenders in New York State prisons are Black or Latino, according to the advocacy campaign Drop the Rock. Reformers and civil rights activists have long criticized the laws as racist and inhumane, not to mention wasteful and generally ineffective for dealing with the social impacts of substance abuse. The state Commission on Sentencing Reform has now officially laid out prospects for reform in a report that concludes:

"Community-based drug treatment, especially when required in a criminal justice setting where the offender faces clearly defined sanctions for program failure, works and should be an available option in every region of the state. "The state’s network of existing diversion programs and drug courts has been effective for thousands of drug-addicted offenders, and any new diversion model must be structured so as not to undermine these programs. "New York should adopt a comprehensive plan to provide statewide access to substance abuse treatment programs.  "New York must continue to reserve costly prison resources for high-risk offenders and make greater use of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders while not jeopardizing the state’s significant gains in public safety."

Yet the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the report for not going far enough in opening legal avenues to community-based alternatives to incarceration. The group argues that more positive interventions would remain out of reach for many drug offenders because the proposed guidelines would:

"Preclude youthful offenders with certain prior convictions from diversion to rehabilitation. "Require a ‘certification of addiction’ procedure that will result in a complex and costly factual dispute that prosecutors will always be better armed to win. "Exclude from eligibility for diversion those who are not addicted but could nevertheless be better served by community based rehabilitation programs. Successful diversion models employed across the country and in New York State demonstrate that providing mental health, vocational and educational services offer the best outcomes."

But even if the movement toward an overhaul is not radical enough for many activists, recent shifts on drug policy in Albany’s political climate have been unmistakable. Reform measures have a better chance of passing this year, as Governor David Paterson has long criticized the drug laws, and in the State Senate, the new Democratic majority means less political resistance. The fiscal crisis now besetting New York and many other state governments may also convince policymakers that the government cannot afford wasteful incarceration policies under a budget crunch. After decades of some of the most regressive drug laws in the country, New York may soon find itself at the helm of a nationwide wave of reform, as states—and even the federal government–realign drug policy in light of social realities, racial inequity, and economic priorities.