Reforming the Rockefeller Laws

Will New York's legislature finally do away with the obnoxious Rockefeller drug laws?

The Rockefeller laws tied the hands of judges by requiring lengthy prison terms even for first-time offenders. Essentially, the law allowed prosecutors to decide who went to jail and for how long. The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade. The law has been especially disastrous for black and Latino offenders, who represent the overwhelming majority of those held in state prison for drug offenses.

This editorial quotes with approval Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, who criticized a state commission that studied reform. The commission was loaded with prosecutors who, unsurprisingly, wanted to keep power in their own hands rather than returning sentencing discretion to judges.

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Mr. Silver, who has favored reform for many years, described the panel’s report as “a missed opportunity” and signaled his intent to push for legislation that would eliminate mandatory sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes and expand judicial authority. Real reform “means untying the hands of our judiciary,” he noted, “and placing emphasis on probation, alternatives to incarceration and treatment.”

Exactly. Mandatory sentencing laws let prosecutors, not judges, decide who goes to prison. Too many minor offenders end up charged with a crime carrying a mandatory sentence simply because they won't rat out their friends. Judges are more inclined than prosecutors to believe that exercising the right to remain silent shouldn't carry a penalty.

Republicans have predictably blocked reform in the past. The editorial predicts that this is the year their efforts to quash reform will fail.

Republican lawmakers who represent prison districts and the correction officers’ unions normally block reform. But Rockefeller reform seems almost certain now that that Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. That’s welcome news in the state that has squandered many young lives and started the national trend toward mandatory sentencing.

Yes it is.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Are we 100% sure (none / 0) (#1)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 11:35:02 AM EST
    The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade.
    this is true?

    yes, (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 12:57:57 PM EST
    Are we 100% sure this is true?

    we are.

    i also know, with 100% certainty, that not only will these laws not be stricken from the books, they will most likely be added to, if anything.

    no politician ever saw a criminal statute that couldn't be made "tougher", just in time for his/her re-election.


    "yes, we do." (none / 0) (#4)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 01:05:02 PM EST
    Great, we've got that settled.

    They are trying to close prisons in New York (none / 0) (#5)
    by JSN on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 04:17:51 PM EST
    because they are no longer needed. The towns where the prisons are located want the jobs so they are fighting to keep them open.

    OTOH street drug dealers are expendable so putting them in prison  does nothing to curb the drug trade.

    Half right is not so bad.

    One of my friends did his thesis research in federal prisons in the 60s and at that time they were full of inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Now it is about half drug offenders in federal prisons and about 20% in state prisons. The BJS has the statistics on state and federal prisons and the BOP has the data on federal prisoners. For some reason the editorial writers don't check their facts.

    About 60% of a state prison population is replaced each year and about half of the admissions are returns and revocation and that explains why people talk about a revolving door. We are not getting that many new criminals however we are doing a better job of incarcerating the ones we have.

    Somehow we are supposed to find 960,000 first time drug offenders to incarcerate each year to keep our prisons filled. I think the reason so many people believe this is happening is because the arrest rates for drug possession are very high and they don't realize that most of those arrested are promptly fined and released.


    Those laws (none / 0) (#2)
    by lentinel on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 12:57:16 PM EST
    People brewing beer used to be shot for doing so. Not so long ago, either.