March 27, 2009

Governor Paterson and legislative leaders announce three-way agreement to reform New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws


Governor David A. Paterson Press Releases. For immediate release: March 27, 2009

Sweeping Reform Ends Harsh Sentences for Non-violent Addicts

Focuses on Treatment Rather than Punishment to End the Cycle of Addiction

Governor David A. Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver today announced a three-way agreement calling for sweeping reform of the State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. The agreement eliminates the harsh sentences that the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated by giving judges total authority to divert non-violent addicts to treatment and greatly expanding drug treatment programs. The agreement strikes a careful and appropriate balance to ensure that non-violent addicted offenders get the treatment they need while predatory kingpins get the punishment they deserve.

“I have been fighting to overhaul the drug laws and restore judicial discretion in narcotics cases since I began my career in public service as a State Senator nearly a quarter-century ago,” Governor Paterson said. “As a resident and representative of Harlem, I saw first-hand the devastating effect that drugs have on our communities, and the devastating effect that ill-considered drug laws and drug policies have had on individuals, families and neighborhoods.”

The Governor added: “I have seen too many lives destroyed by outrageously harsh and ineffective mandatory sentencing laws, and I have also seen too many lives ruined by despicable dealers who prey on the vulnerabilities and addictions of others. I believe this agreement strikes the right balance, and I urge the Legislature to enact it immediately, before more lives and communities are needlessly destroyed.”

Senate Majority Leader Smith said: “Today marks the beginning of a new era for New York’s sentencing laws. Rockefeller Drug Law reform will reverse years of ineffective criminal laws, protect communities and save taxpayers millions of dollars that were wasted on the current policy. With more money going toward treatment instead of costly imprisonment, our State will finally have a smarter policy, giving families a fighting chance in the war on drugs.”

Assembly Speaker Silver said: “Long before we had partners in either the Executive or in the Senate, the Assembly Majority was fighting for real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. With this legislation, we have taken, at long last, a giant leap in establishing a more just, a more humane and a more effective drug policy in the State of New York. No longer will drug use and addiction be considered solely a criminal matter in this State, but a public health matter as well. This legislation recognizes that drug addiction is a disease which calls out for treatment rather than incarceration. I commend the tenacity and the dedication of my colleagues and the leadership of Assemblymembers Aubry, Lentol and Weinstein for their unyielding commitment to this issue.”

Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson said: “Today, the Governor and the Legislature have agreed on a major change in public policy. We have created a balanced approach to drug addiction and crime. Our ability to reduce the flow of drugs in our communities is dependent on our ability to reduce the demand. We are now shifting resources to treat drug addiction as a medical problem. By diverting addicts to drug treatment courts, we believe we can get people off drugs and thereby reduce the demand for them. Study after study shows that our policies will make our communities safer and save the taxpayers millions of dollars. Today, we begin anew, offering offenders an opportunity to receive treatment, while maintaining that the safety and security of our neighborhoods, cities, and State remains paramount.”

Senator John L. Sampson said: “This is a promise made, and a promise kept. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have decimated communities and destroyed lives. Our Democratic conference said that once in the Majority we would be instrumental in making changes that positively impact all people across our State. Taking on this issue in our first year as the Majority shows the people that the Senate is serious and will not back down from the big issues. Reforms we made in 2004 were just a down payment, we’ve now paid off the mortgage. So I congratulate the Governor and members of the Assembly. I also congratulate my colleagues, Senators Schneiderman and Hassell-Thompson, who along with myself, were at the table and the forefront of the push to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

Senator Eric T. Schneiderman said: “This legislation delivers a big dose of sanity to our State’s sentencing practices. It will make our communities safer, save money and, most importantly, save lives. Thousands of people from every corner of this State will benefit from these reforms. Today NewYork chooses treatment over incarceration—30 years is enough.”

Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry said: “My Assembly colleagues and I continue in our pledge not to give up our fight for greater reform of New York State’s ineffective and imprudent drug laws. While today’s agreement brings us closer to our goal, we recognize the need to do more. We will continue to work with our partners to completely reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol said: “Thirty-six years ago I voted against the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. It was clear to me that simply locking drug offenders away without treatment would not be effective. I am pleased that we are finally towards turning this travesty around and judges will once again have more of the discretion they need.”

Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein said: “Judicial discretion has always been one of the core principles for which the Assembly has fought. With the expansion of drug courts and other options to treat addicts, we are moving toward dealing with the underlying problems of drug offenders – giving them the opportunity to get treatment and reduce recidivism in New York.”

The agreement will give judges the discretion to divert non-violent drug addicted individuals to treatment alternatives that are shown to be far more successful than prison in ending the cycle of addiction. Crucially, it also commits tens of millions of dollars to existing and new treatment programs.“

It makes no sense to give judges the authority to place non-violent addicted offenders into treatment if there is nowhere to treat them,” Governor Paterson said. “We must not only overhaul the drug laws, but also provide an infrastructure to ensure that we successfully rehabilitate those who are addicted.”

There are three significant pieces of the agreement. First, it creates a drug treatment program to be administered by drug court judges.

* Under this program, judges will have discretion to place addicted first and second-time drug offenders into judicially-approved alcohol and substance abuse treatment – over the objections of prosecutors.
* This agreement also recognizes that drug-addicted persons often commit other crimes, such as property and theft offenses. This agreement will make treatment available to these non-violent addicted offenders who commit these offenses.
* The agreement maximizes an addicted offender’s chance of success in overcoming addiction, by relying on New York’s highly successful drug courts to administer the new treatment model. Drug courts use specially-trained judges who build relationships with offenders, closely monitor their progress and reward their successes. They are also staffed with case managers and vocational and employment specialists to assist offenders in obtaining education and jobs.
* For the first time, the agreement gives judges the authority to dismiss all charges or seal the arrest and conviction records of offenders who successfully complete a judicially-sanctioned treatment program. It also gives judges complete discretion to determine an appropriate penalty for those offenders who are unable to succeed in the treatment program.
* The agreement recognizes that relapses are often part of recovery from long-term drug addiction. It would require judges to consider whether a non-incarceratory remedy, such as heightened supervision or more frequent testing and treatment, could effectively be used if an offender under court supervision suffers a relapse.
* The agreement vastly expands the availability of drug treatment programs and commits tens of millions of dollars to inpatient treatment programs, outpatient treatment programs and community residential facilities.
* Recognizing that some offenders may require more supervision than can be provided through community-based drug treatment programs, the agreement expands the use of programs such as the “shock” incarceration program and the Willard drug treatment program, to give judges additional sentencing options for these offenders.
* The agreement also permits the State Division of Parole to discharge early from continued parole supervision those drug offenders who have demonstrated success and rehabilitation while serving a term of post-release supervision.

Second, the agreement relieves new offenders from some of the old Rockefeller Drug Law’s mandatory sentencing provisions and provides additional relief to offenders who remain incarcerated under the old laws.

* The agreement eliminates mandatory State prison sentences for first-time class B felony drug offenders and second-time non-violent class C, D and E drug offenders, making them eligible for a term of probation that could also include drug treatment, or a local jail sentence.
* The agreement permits class B drug felons who meet eligibility criteria and who are currently serving Rockefeller Drug Law sentences to enter the six-month shock incarceration program when they are within three years of release. If successful, they would be entitled to early release from prison.
* The agreement also requires the Board of Parole to consider current, lower sentencing ranges when deciding whether to release a class B drug offender to parole supervision.

Third, the agreement ensures that offenders who are not addicted, but who profit from the addictions of others, are appropriately sentenced to State prison.

* The Governor believes that law enforcement should target drug kingpins instead of low-level drug users and his agreement creates a new drug “kingpin” offense that targets organized drug traffickers who profit from and prey on drug users.
* The agreement also creates new crimes to ensure that adults who sell drugs to children are appropriately required to serve time in State prison.
* Finally, the agreement retains mandatory prison sentences for class B predicate drug offenders, but allows judges to impose lower prison terms that are similar to those in other states.

See also: Albany Reaches Deal to Repeal ’70s Drug Laws, by Jeremy W. Peters. (New York Times, March 25 2009.)