40 years ago today, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted the toughest drug laws in the nation. Known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, this legislation served as a milestone in America’s war on drugs and helped paved the way for the enactment of similar legislation that became the norm in sentencing policy across the nation, even to this day.
After President Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” in 1971, Rockefeller, like many politicians across the U.S., pushed for “tough on crime” policies that demanded harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, even low-level drug dealers and addicts. When passed, the Rockefeller Drug Laws forced New York judges to sentence those convicted of possessing small amounts of certain drugs, even marijuana, to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison, similar to sentences handed out for second-degree murder convictions.
The harsh Rockefeller Drug laws became the model for other states seeking similar “tough on crime” policies, and many adopted New York’s approach to sentencing. This forceful reaction to the nation’s perceived drug problem led to a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners serving sentences for drug offenses, and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars over time.
According to NPR:
Due in part to Rockefeller-style laws, the nation's prison population exploded from 330,000 in 1973 to a peak of 2.3 million. That meant building hundreds of new state and federal prisons. By 2010, more than 490,000 people were working as prison guards.
It’s clear, however, that public opinion has shifted since the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted 40 years ago. Indeed, even Joseph Persico, the aide who helped push through Rockefeller's drug laws, has said, “I concluded very early that this was a failure. It's filling up the prisons, first-time offenders. This was obviously unjust — and not just unjust, it was unwise; it was ineffective."
As the negative effects of these laws have become more apparent, a number of states have reduced or completely eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in an attempt to reduce their swollen prison populations and corrections expenditures, New York being one of them. In 2009, New York partially reformed Rockefeller Drug Laws by restoring judicial discretion in most drug cases, expanding drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and providing retroactive sentencing relief for people serving prison time for low-level drug offenses.
Despite the changes made in some states, many other states still sentence nonviolent drug offenders as they did forty years ago. As a result, more than 330,000 Americans are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in prisons that are becoming increasingly overcrowded. Inmates serving sentences for drug offenses make up 47.3 percent of the current inmate population in federal prisons.
It’s time to come to terms with the fact that this Rockefeller Drug Law-era of sentencing has failed. In his 2009 State of the State address, New York Governor David Patterson told his audience: "I can't think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws." One hopes that on the 40th anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, lawmakers across the country are having similar revelations about their own failed sentencing policies.