New York’s uphill climb to drop the rock

By Michelle Chen Mar 06, 2009

All eyes are on New York as it moves toward reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The mandatory-sentencing statutes have reshaped the prison population since the 1970s by drawing in thousands of people of color and low-level and nonviolent offenders. So far, cautious optimism has surrounded measures now winding through the state legislature. The Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill that would restore some discretion to judges; remove barriers to diversion programs that route people into treatment; provide for specialized “drug courts” in every county; and boosts programs for people reentering communities from prison. The bill goes further than the incremental recommendations floated by the state’s Commission on Sentencing Reform, but nonetheless falls short of the overhaul that advocacy groups seek. The NYCLU and the Correctional Association of New York point out that the Assembly proposal leaves the basic sentencing structure intact and actually narrows eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation programs. There’s also the danger that these initiatives, like limited reforms passed in previous years, will rob momentum from the grassroots opposition movement and yield few meaningful changes. In the official rhetoric surrounding the reform question, racial issues–namely the overwhelming disproportionality in sentencing patterns–have made a quiet stir. Money may talk much louder. Activists are pushing the argument that New York can save major public dollars through reforms that deemphasize mass incarceration while reinvesting in community-based alternatives. We’ll see if the appeal to reason and immediate budget anxieties spurs Albany to act. On a national level, though, shifting the paradigm on the war on drugs and criminal justice policy means confronting head-on the racial, political and economic inequalities that gird these systems. Image: Drop the Rock