About the Rockefeller Drug Laws
Enacted in 1973 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDLs) required long prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. The laws established draconian mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of drug crimes. The main criterion for culpability depended on the weight of the drugs in a person’s possession when he or she was apprehended, rather than on the actual role played in the narcotics transaction. Judges lacked discretion in determining sentences, and many individuals convicted of low-level, first-time drug crimes were sent to prison to serve unduly harsh sentences.
The drug laws played a significant role in the mass incarceration of low-income people of color from a handful of New York City communities. African Americans and Latinos account the vast majority of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses, despite research indicating that the majority of the people who use and sell drugs are white.
Data proves that alternative-to-incarceration programs such as drug treatment, job training, and educational programs are significantly more effective means of addressing addiction and preparing participants for a crime-free, healthy and productive life. The Rockefeller Drug Laws prevented judges from utilizing these more appropriate, less-costly responses to drug-related crime.
New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws are largely credited as the model for similar mandatory minimum drug statutes across the country, and as such helped fuel the rapid increase in the number of people imprisoned nationwide. As a result of this notoriety, the term “Rockefeller-era drug law” is often used to refer to any harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing statute.
In December 2004 and July 2005, New York passed a first round of limited reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, including some sentence reductions, increases in “merit time,” and reforms to parole practices. These changes were a small step forward, but did not restore judicial discretion or provide funds for alternatives-to-incarceration or treatment programs.
On April 24, 2009, after years of advocacy on the part of the Coalition and its allies, Governor David Paterson signed into law significant reforms marking the beginning of the end of New York’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. The 2009 reforms restored judicial discretion for broad categories of first and second time drug offenses, allowed some individuals incarcerated under the laws to apply for resentencing, and expanded on alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment programs in prison and in the community.