If you glanced at the Times last Thursday, you might think Governor Paterson and state legislators had finally woken up and decided to wipe the Rockefeller drug laws off the books. ALBANY REACHES DEAL TO REPEAL ’70s DRUG LAWS, declared the page-one-above-the-fold story. Well, not exactly. By Friday morning, when the governor held a press conference on the proposed changes to the laws, it had become increasingly apparent that “repeal” was not the right word.
Back in 1973, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller hatched the idea of punishing drug users and sellers with stiff mandatory sentences, Mayor John Lindsay denounced his plan as “merely a deceptive gesture offering nothing beyond momentary satisfaction and inevitable disillusionment.” The most egregious injustices were the fifteen- and twenty-to-life sentences handed down for first-time drug crimes—more time than for kidnapping or rape or manslaughter.
Fast-forward 36 years, and opponents are still battling to undo these laws. They managed to eke out a few small reforms in 2004 and 2005. And now this latest plan will enable judges to send some nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison—which sounds good, but of course the devil is always in the details. Last week, details were hard to come by. How many people are we really talking about? (The governor’s office says it doesn’t yet know, but the Correctional Association, a prison-watchdog group, estimates that it would have affected half of those now locked up on drug charges.*) And what if you’re not an addict at all? What if it’s not treatment you need but a high-school degree and a job? Do you have to feign addiction to avoid prison?
What remains untouched is the basic punishment structure of the laws. Of the 11,936 prisoners doing time for a drug crime in New York State’s prisons at the start of this year, the largest group—a total of 4,949—were sentenced for class-B felonies. Selling only one bag of heroin or one vial of crack still qualifies as a B felony. While the new proposal would empower judges to send first-time B felons to treatment instead of prison, for those who were never addicts in the first place, the punishment remains the same: one to nine years in prison. (And for those with a prior record who don't get treatment, it’s a minimum of three and a half and up to twelve years.*)
The momentum that triggered these latest reforms can be traced back to 1998, when a ragtag group of prisoners’ relatives started holding weekly vigils outside Rockefeller Center, carrying placards with photos of their loved ones. But when the group’s leader, Randy Credico, watched Paterson’s press conference, he was not happy. He worries that overselling this proposal creates the illusion that the problem has been solved, and makes it that much more difficult to revisit the issue. “They came up with an agreement to get people to stop complaining,” he says. “It’s not sweeping. It’s misleading advertising. These guys may as well be selling used cars.”
*Revised since publication.