January 22, 2009

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver addressed the New York Academy of Medicine & the Drug Policy Alliance, at their "New Directions for New York: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy" conference, January 22, 2009.

The Remarks of Speaker Sheldon Silver
Silver: 2009 is the Year to Finally Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws

{As Prepared for Delivery}

Speaker Sheldon Silver, addressing the New York Academy of Medicine and Drug Policy Alliance forum on a new approach to New York’s drug laws, noted the Assembly has fought strongly and successfully for long overdue changes to the Rockefeller Drug law in 2004 and expects “real reforms” to be achieved this year.

WWRL Errol Lewis & Speaker Sheldon Silver Interview   headphones

On behalf of my colleagues who are standing with me this evening, and on behalf of the New York State Assembly, I commend the leadership of both The New York Academy of Medicine and The Drug Policy Alliance for your commitment to establishing here, in the State of New York, a more just, a more humane and a more effective drug policy.

My thanks to you as well, for convening this important conference and for inviting us to participate this evening.

This is an extraordinary time, a time for change, a time for letting go of the failed policies of the past, a time for looking at age-old challenges with "new eyes."

It is fitting that we are here together at the Academy at this time, because we share the common concern that drug policy in this state is treated predominantly as a criminal justice matter and not as the serious and complex public health issue that it is.

For us, the leadership of the Assembly Majority, and especially for the Chair of our Standing Committee on Corrections, Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, who has long been alone in the wilderness, championing reform of this state's drug policies, he more than anyone deserves applause.

There has never been any question that the so-called "war on drugs" is and always has been a massive failure.

Look no further than the incidents of overdose, the lives that have been lost, the potential that has been wasted, the prison cells filled overwhelmingly with Black and Latino drug offenders, the desperate families striving to save loved ones from themselves and from a one-way ticket to prison.

Think of the resources that have been expended fighting this war, money that could have been invested in education, rehabilitation, job training, investments that would have saved countless lives.

Certainly, there has never been any question in our minds that a primary weapon in that war - the Rockefeller Drug Laws - are and always have been a huge catastrophe for this state and absolutely must be reformed.

In 2004, we were able, together, to force New York to rethink the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and to begin moving this state toward the reality that drug addiction is a disease for which there are better, more humane, more effective, less costly alternatives than incarceration.

Though we have much further to go, these limited reforms have already saved New York nearly $100 million.

With more than 13,000 drug offenders in prison right now, imagine the lives we could change, and the money we could save in these difficult economic times.

On May 8th of 2008 - the 35th anniversary of the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws - we held a historic hearing on New York State's drug policy.

That hearing, which you would expect to be conducted by our Corrections, Codes and Judiciary Committees, this year included our Health, Social Services, and Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Committees.

For the first time, all of the relevant committees involved, who deal with the myriad aspects of drug abuse, were working together with the advocates to craft a new vision of drug policy in this state.

What our hearings crystallized is expressed in the title of this conference, that New York must adopt a new direction, a public health and safety approach to drug policy.

Let me add that the testimony we received - which included the testimony of Dr. Ruth Finkelstein and Dr. Crystal Fuller of the New York Academy of Medicine -informed those efforts greatly.

Regarding drug policy, I could not agree more with Dr. Finkelstein's assertion that, "We should gauge success by improvements in the health of individuals, families and communities … these should be the metrics by which we judge the effectiveness of our policies, not incarceration rates."

This evening, I am proud to tell you, on behalf of my Assembly Majority colleagues that this year - 2009 - is the year we finally enact real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

This is the year when we begin to transform drug policy in the State of New York.

We will work with the Governor, with Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and with the new and improved Senate Majority to break this state's addiction to mandatory prison sentences for non-violent offenders.

We will begin the process by passing our own Rockefeller Reform legislation.

We will finally give back to our judges the discretion to sentence non-violent drug offenders to sentences that include alternatives to state prison.

We will support the expansion of drug courts as well as the Drug Treatment Alternative Program (DTAP).

We will continue to ensure public safety by maintaining severe penalties for drug kingpins, for those who use a gun in the commission of a drug offense, and for those who sell drugs to our children.

We are here to say to all of you that this year we will enact real, comprehensive, common-sense drug law reform that addresses the full range of public health issues that spring from illicit drug use.

Now I know we do not have the resources today to serve all of the populations that we need to serve.

We do, however, have infrastructure, including some 800 treatment beds that should be marshaled to break the cycle of addiction and incarceration that is at the core of the challenge.

There is no reason to warehouse non-violent offenders in a our state prisons until other resources become available.

We intend to put a new policy in place and take the actions that we can to restore humanity to drug policy here in the Empire State.

Developing a system that begins with identification and ends with rehabilitation is an enormous task.

We will be looking to the New York Academy of Medicine, to the Drug Policy Alliance and to all of the advocacy groups, to help us reverse 35 years of intolerance, inhumanity and ignorance.

Finally, we have partners in the Executive, in the Legislature, and in the White House who share your goal - our goal - of ending addiction, restoring hope and reconnecting families.

Ultimately, that is what it is all about: hope.

I hear it in the voices of parents who urge me not to stop fighting for Rockefeller reform because their son or their daughter deserves the same "second chance" we so readily give away to celebrities and athletes.

I see it in the faces of young men and women who are struggling to recover from addiction who come to Albany each and every year, asking us to believe in them.

Now, at last, when the opportunity has arrived to humanize New York's drug policies, how can I fail them? How can we?

I urge you to work with us, to come up with a comprehensive policy plan. We are prepared to enact major reforms this year.

Thank you for listening.

View Speaker Sheldon Silver's Policy Paper:
Breaking New York’s Addiction to Prison: Reforming New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws