March 4, 2009

Assembly Passes Landmark Drug Law Reforms

Bill Eliminates Most Mandatory Minimums,
Creates New Sentencing Options For Judges

Citing 35 years of failed drug policy under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assembly Correction Committee Chair Jeffrion Aubry, Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein and Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol announced that the Assembly approved legislation that addresses the harshest aspects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws by eliminating most mandatory minimum state prison sentences and creates new sentencing options for judges without disrupting those options available under current law.

Sponsored by Aubry, the legislation (A.6085) significantly reforms New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws by restoring judicial discretion and permitting judges to sentence non-violent drug offenders to probation, local jail or a combination of both. The bill also enhances options for substance abuse and drug treatment and rehabilitation. It would also augment reentry initiatives designed to facilitate the reintegration of offenders into society thereby breaking the revolving door of drug abuse and prison.

"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."

"These reforms are long overdue. This legislation provides for a more sensible, comprehensive and cost-effective approach for dealing with lower-level drug offenders and addicts," said Aubry (D-Queens). "Think of all the resources that have been spent on locking-up non-violent 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 ten percent recidivism rate for participants one year after completion, compared to 60 to 70 percent for those not in programs. Treatment works."

Provisions of the bill would expand the availability of drug treatment programs, allow judges to sentence non-violent, lower-level offenders to probation or to treatment for substance abuse both in and out of prison. The legislation would also increase the availability of drug courts by authorizing that one be created in each county in the state.

While eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences, the legislation would maintain existing maximum prison terms so that courts have broad discretion when sentencing defendants. It would deny the benefits of a possible probation or local jail sentence to adults who prey on children by selling them drugs, drug dealers who use loaded guns when selling and drug kingpins. It would also permit courts to maintain existing diversion programs

The lawmakers noted that New York currently spends almost $45,000 per year incarcerating each drug offender in state prison, many of whom are non-violent individuals struggling with substance abuse. Initial reforms made in 2004 that lowered maximum sentences and eliminated life sentences have already saved the state nearly $100 million.

"Currently there are approximately 13,400 people serving time in state prisons for drug offenses. Thirty-nine percent have been incarcerated for drug possession, not selling, and 80 percent have never been convicted of a violent offense. By eliminating mandatory sentences, we give judges the opportunity to consider all factors in determining whether state prison is the answer," said Weinstein (D-Brooklyn). "History has shown that the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to these problems, which under the Rockefeller Drug Laws has meant mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, has failed offenders and society."

"I have spent my entire career fighting to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws but my frustration pales in comparison to those who have spent their entire lives behind bars because New York's drug policy is so severe and draconian you may do more time for drug offenses than for rape or homicide," said Lentol (D-Brooklyn). "It is far easier to be 'tough on crime' than to be smart on crime and do what actually works. But I think New York is finally on the path to being smart on crime, public health and drug policy and I am proud to be a part of that."

Additional provisions of the legislation would extend the benefits of drug law reform to those currently sentenced under the reformed drug laws continuing the non-mandatory resentencing option created in 2005. The legislation would also reduce recidivism by providing sound reentry initiatives, and by enacting a statute that would permit certain drug convictions to be conditionally sealed by a court, after a hearing, including the offender and prosecutors.


Click here to view a copy of the Speaker's memo outlining the bill

Click here to view Speaker Silver's Press Conference Remarks