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Panel Discusses Reform of Rockefeller Drug Laws


A panel of New York legal experts convened on Sept. 8 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to discuss recent reforms to New York state’s Rockefeller drug laws.

The event, titled “Rockefeller Drug Law Reform: A Step Toward Smarter Sentencing Policy for the 21st Century,” was moderated by Anita R. Marton, vice president of the Legal Action Center.

Established in 1973, and named for their primary advocate, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the laws required judges to impose a sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of a narcotic or sale of two ounces of a narcotic.

The laws were the harshest in the nation and resulted in a skyrocketing prison population.

Rockefeller’s belief that only severe penalties would deter people from drug use and sales has been superceded by an acknowledgement that, in some cases, “people’s addictions are driving their criminality,” Marton said.

The new reforms, signed into law by Gov. David Paterson this past April, reflect a movement toward treatment rather than imprisonment for the addicted.

During his years of experience within the penal system, panelist Martin Horn came to believe that imprisonment is a “lousy social investment,” one in which “we don’t get a very good return” he said.

“The only thing that people do in prison is time,” said Horn, a former commissioner of the city’s probation department. “Prison doesn’t cure very much . . . There are better ways to create public safety.”

Panelist Cy Vance Jr., a candidate for Manhattan district attorney and member of the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform, shared that sentiment:

“We know a lot more now than we did when I was a young DA about how to reduce recidivism, especially in drug cases,” Vance said.

The key reforms include:

• returning to judges much of the sentencing discretion they had pre-Rockefeller;
• allowing some who are currently incarcerated to apply for re-sentencing;
• conditional sealing of first-time felony drug convictions and up to three misdemeanor convictions;
• allocating $72 million for treatment, alternatives to incarceration, re-entry and other programming.

Panelist Alan Rosenthal concurred, seeing the old sentencing system as “an abysmal failure,” but he warned that “these are very modest reforms and we have miles to go.”

Rosenthal, co-director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, stressed the importance of “informed judicial discretion,” where judges have access to all of the information and resources needed to provide evidence-based decisions.

All three panel members emphasized the continued importance of considering how a given sentence would help promote the successful re-entry of an individual into society after incarceration.

“I believe that we have a responsibility for everyone we send to state prison to have an exit strategy,” Vance said. “We don’t spend enough time owning the future of the individual that we sentence with an eye toward enhancing public safety and making that person a success when he or she comes out of jail, at the same time ensuring fairness in the sentences that we mete out.”

“Rockefeller Drug Law Reform: A Step Toward Smarter Sentencing Policy for the 21st Century” was sponsored by the NY Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society, the Legal Action Center and Fordham’s Stein Center for Law and Ethics.


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