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March 26, 2009


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The Rockefeller Drug Laws strip judges of their discretion, requiring they give people convicted of drug offenses a mandatory minimum sentence based solely on the quantity of a drug involved in the offense. These sentences are mandatory regardless of the individual's background, character, role in the offense, and the circumstances of the offense. Whether the person is a first-time offender, for instance, is irrelevant. Under this system, prosecutors, not judges, control the process.


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If we want to understand the perseverance of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, it may suit us to ask entirely different questions. If they haven’t reduced crime or mitigated the crippling burden of drug addiction, what have they accomplished? Here, history teaches that these laws were never a reasoned strategy to address drug abuse. Instead, they were the result of a particular historical moment, a politically expedient, emotional declaration by Governor Rockefeller in the midst of mass social upheaval and growing heroin addiction.


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But as many other states moved to roll back the mandatory minimum sentences in recent years, New York kept its laws on the books, leaving prosecutors with the sole discretion of whether offenders could be sent to treatment.


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What do these changes mean for drug and criminal justice policy in New York and the nation? This is the key question facing advocates around the
country today.

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