New Legislation Aims to Reform NY Drug Laws

March 5, 2009 Updated: March 5, 2009

NEW YORK—In New York, it is a fact that you can go to prison for a long time for nonviolent drug crimes. Someone caught with an amount of marijuana that the state would agree is for personal use, could spend the next nine years behind bars. Under a new series of drug law reforms proposed by New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that person could still end up in jail for a first-time nonviolent drug offense—but would not have to.

Currently, New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws require judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences for all drug related crimes. This leaves judges’ hands tied in situations when they would rather impose a sentence of probation and drug therapy. The proposed legislation (A 6085) would give judges the ability to sentence nonviolent drug offenders to probation, time in local jails, or drug treatment programs.

Both Silver and the other sponsor of the bill, Assembly Correction Committee Chair Jeffrion Aubry, see the proposed drug law reforms as an answer to decades of failed state drug enforcement policy.

“More than 35 years after the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted, it is clear that these laws mandating imprisonment for even lower-level offenders have failed to effectively combat drug abuse or reduce the incidence of violent crime,” said Silver (D-Manhattan).

“This legislation restores humanity to drug policy here in New York. It expands the sentencing options available to judges, without endangering the public. Judges are in the best position to know who is deserving of prison and who is not. State prison and mandatory prison sentences are not the magic bullets to address drug abuse and its attendant problems; restoring judicial discretion is the solution.”

Assemblyman Aubry said, “Think of all the resources that have been spent on locking up nonviolent drug offenders that could have been invested in the education, rehabilitation, and job training that can save lives. Treatment programs in New York City have a 10 percent recidivism rate for participants one year after completion, compared to 60 to 70 percent for those not in programs. Treatment works.”

The new legislation would require that a comptroller keep close track of the amount of savings generated each year by sending fewer drug offenders to prison, and would require that the funds be set aside and dedicated to funding programs that combat drug addiction.

Every person in state prison costs taxpayers approximately $45,000 per year. So, for example, under the mandate of the proposed legislation, if 10 drug offenders were kept out of prison, the state could have a half million dollars to allocate toward drug addiction programs.

But savings to the tax-payer aside, the new reforms are an attempt to make the drug laws in New York fairer. To this end, the new legislation would allow people currently in prison for nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing—and it would allow for an appeals process if for any reason the courts refused to resentence based on the new law.

In a pre-empt to criticism that the reforms would weaken the state’s toolkit for combating drug crimes, the proposed legislation is written to underline the fact that it would maintain the maximum sentences set forth by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. That means that judges would still have the power to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time if they saw fit to do so. The difference under the new legislation—if it were to become law—is that the judges will have a choice.