In 1973 the Rockefeller Laws were enacted under then governor Nelson Rockefeller. These laws significantly increased prison sentences for drug possession and established mandatory sentencing rules that judges must follow in punishing people.
Many critics of the laws claim that their effect falls mostly on people of color. Statistics show that the majority of drug users and sellers are white. However, 94% of the 19,000 drug offenders currently in New York State prisons are black and Latino, according to the Correctional Association of New York.
In the late 1980's, a young man was arrested for possessing four ounces of cocaine. He was twenty. He had no other priors. He was going to community college. He was poor and had no legal representation. He was sentenced to fifteen years to life. He was recently released after serving his minimum sentence.
The judge who heard his case had no discretion. Due to the Rockefeller Laws and mandatory sentencing rules, the judge was powerless.
Our twenty year old who was on a college track is now thirty-five and has been hardened by the harsh upbringing of prison life. What will become of him? He's free, but he has no skills, no friends and not much to reach for.
Today more than fifteen years later, CJ admits to his poor decision-making, decisions that changed his life forever.
In his case, he was not an addict. Unfortunately, he was running with a fast crowd. They were wild college kids partying on the weekend. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He paid a very heavy price for some very poor decision-making.
Today CJ is attempting to rebuild his life. Tens of thousands of CJs have cost the state millions of dollars to incarcerate them for their poor decision-making. Some are hard-core criminals. Many are immature young adults who suffer from addiction and/or impaired decision-making skills.
Nonetheless, our jails are overcrowded. Presently almost twenty thousand people are imprisoned because of the Rockefeller Laws. Too many need rehabilitation, not incarceration.
As many of these people are released after long prison sentences, few are equipped with the skills to make it on the outside. Those who suffer from addiction do not get the kind of help necessary to sustain abstinence and recovery. So when they are released from prison, it is only a matter of time before they use again and the vicious cycle of self-destruction continues.
New York State has spent two billion dollars on new prisons. From 1988 to 1998, New York State has increased prison spending by $761 million dollars and decreased spending on city and state universities by $615 million dollars, according to documents published by the State budget office.
Thankfully, our Governor and the State Assembly are attempting to reform the Rockefeller Laws. Hopefully, this long overdue reform will expand funding for treatment and rehabilitation and not just increase the number of prison beds.
In recent times, local criminal court judges and our District Attorney, Thomas Spota have been open to creative alternatives for those trapped in the complicated maze of addiction, possession and sale of illegal substances.
Clearly, it is not a black or white issue. It is refreshing that some of our criminal justice leaders are open to talking about and supporting alternatives to long-term incarceration for candidates who are appropriate.
Suggesting that the twenty-nine year old Rockefeller Laws be amended or even changed is not in any way a position of tolerance for illegal drug use, possession or sale. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of an approach to this complicated criminal justice issue that has not gotten better in thirty years.
To the contrary, on many fronts the problem has gotten a lot worse. Hardcore deterrence will never deter the addict who is not in recovery from using and selling illegal drugs. Our state statistics bear out this point.
The punitive model to addiction will never work. We can build the biggest prisons on the planet and we will never have enough beds to accommodate the people in our court system due to drug related offenses.
We need to change our approach. We need to re-structure our funding and decide whether we want to alleviate or perpetuate the problem.
If we opt to alleviate the problem, we have to move from a punitive deterrent approach regarding drug crimes to developing a rehabilitative approach. Our major focus will be on empowering the person to develop the skills for positive decision-making, abstinence and recovery.
Paradigm shift does not imply that we become soft on drug use, possession and/or sale. What it does imply is that we hold people accountable in new ways so that they do not become recidivists and can develop the skills for positive survival.
PJ is seventeen. He has acknowledged using hardcore drugs since he was thirteen. He first got turned on by the kids he ran with. They were a little older. But all of them were from well-educated, reasonably intact families.
Unfortunately, last summer PJ got arrested for possession and intent to sell to an undercover cop. Life as he knows it is over. His parents made the mistake of bailing him out. His first bail was set reasonably low because he had no priors. He was re-arrested on the same charge. His addiction has taken hold of him.
Presently, he is looking at a long prison sentence. He could be any parents' son or any teenagers' brother. Long-term incarceration is not going to resolve his problem. He will do his time and you, the taxpayer, will ultimately pay a heavy price to imprison him. It won't help his addiction. When he gets out, what will he do, where will he go and what will become of his life?