Drop the Rock Renewed

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Things–and times–change. Happily aware of this fact, the CA has renewed its commitment to Drop the Rock, our state-wide campaign promoting repeal of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws that were enacted in 1973.

So what has changed? Why think, as we do, that the 2008 legislative session offers a historic opportunity to move this issue?

First, New York has a new governor, Eliot Spitzer, who promised drug law reform in his 2006 campaign, and word from inside Albany’s corridors is that he is now preparing to fulfill that commitment. Also, Spitzer established a Sentencing Reform Commission whose published findings, whatever their content, will inevitably focus attention on the state’s most prominent sentencing issue, namely the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

We have brought on board a full-time organizer, Caitlin Dunklee, who will coordinate our efforts. In the coming months, the CA will join with our allies in elected office and the drug policy reform movement to engage in activities aimed at advancing our repeal agenda, including educating the public about these key matters:

  • The so-called reforms enacted in 2004 and 2005 were far too modest, leaving the laws’ mandatory provisions intact. Judges still do not have discretion at sentencing and more people convicted of low-level drug crimes are being sent to prison–6,039 in 2006 as compared to 5,657 in 2004.
  • It costs the state over $510 million a year to confine the over 13,900 people convicted of drug crimes in our prisons.
  • The drug laws are racist in their application. 91% of the people doing time in New York State prisons for a drug offense are African-American or Latino, despite research showing that the vast majority of drug users are white.
  • Under the drug laws, the main criterion for culpability still depends on the weight of the drugs in a person’s possession when he or she is apprehended, not on the actual role played in the narcotics transaction. Aware of the law’s emphasis, drug kingpins will rarely carry narcotics. It is the drug couriers, or “mules,” who get caught literally holding the bag and face lengthy prison terms.

These laws continue to have a devastating effect on low-income families and communities of color. Moreover, they foster irrational law enforcement practices. For example, research and experience tell us that alternative programs are more effective and less expensive than imprisonment, yet the imposition of mandatory sentencing laws limits the court’s ability to use them appropriately. In fact, it is fair to state that as long as the Rockefeller Drug Laws remain on the books, New York’s governor and legislature of 35 years ago have more say in determining the outcomes of today’s narcotics cases than the judges who sit on the bench and hear all the evidence presented.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws are outdated, wasteful, ineffective, unjust, and marked by an undeniable racial bias. It is long past time to eradicate their stain from New York’s penal code.