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Reform The Rockefeller Drug Laws

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By Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League


May was the 30th anniversary of the New York state legislature’s enactment of the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Proposed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the “get-tough” laws were supposed to solve the burgeoning drug and crime problem by locking up significant participants in the drug trade and thus deterring others from involvement.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

To be sure, the sentences are harsh. For example, a single ten-dollar sale of cocaine brings a minimum sentence of one to three years in prison—and four and a half to nine years if the offender has a prior conviction. A first-time offender convicted of participating in the sale of two ounces of cocaine will draw a minimum sentence of fifteen years—and, possibly, a life-term sentence.

However, contrary to the original justifications that they would target the major traffickers and violent individuals, the laws have largely been ineffective in thwarting the drug trafficking and violent crime they were designed to stop.

According to Ernest Drucker, Professor of Epidemiology and Social Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center /Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, 60 percent of those incarcerated were convicted of offenses in the three lowest classes of drug felonies, which involve very small amounts of drugs. And less than a quarter of these inmates had any prior violent felony convictions for any crime. Nearly a third had no prior felony convictions at all.

Since May 1973, more than 150,000 people have been sentenced to New York’s prisons for nonviolent drug offenses—helping to fuel the state’s astounding boom in both inmates, from 14,400 then to more than 70,000 today, and in prison expenditures.
But the misery hasn’t been confined only to New York.

James Lanier, senior resident scholar for Community Justice Programs at the National Urban League’s Institute of Opportunity and Equality, points out that “more than any other single legislative act, New York’s adoption of the Rockefeller Drug Laws [symbolized] the beginning of the massive surge in incarceration” in states across the country.

Lanier and Drucker are writing separate essays on the nation’s disastrous addiction to “mass incarceration” as a policy of law enforcement for the Urban League’s forthcoming scholarly journal, The State of Black America 2003.

Both assert that because police drug enforcement in concentrated on the street-level trade in Black and Hispanic communities, the effect of the Rockefeller drug laws and the laws it inspired across the country has been to exacerbate to an astonishing degree the racial character of who gets arrested, convicted and imprisoned for drugs in America.

Nationally, African Americans account for 13 percent of the nation’s drug users, their proportion of the general population. But they make up 35 percent of drug arrests and 53 percent of drug convictions.

Moreover, such massive incarceration has been fiscally foolish. It’s a highly expensive but ineffective deterrent in the important war against drugs and violent crime in America.
A better approach, now supported by experts across a wide philosophical spectrum, is to focus on drug education, prevention, and intensive treatment.

There’s no doubt that the Rockefeller drug laws are unjust; and there is widespread, nonpartisan agreement that they should be substantially changed. Such government officials as Governor George E. Pataki, a Republican, and Sheldon Silver, the Democratic Speaker of the State Assembly, and a host of other politicos have publicly supported revising them.

Yet, the laws remain as they have been.

Thus, it’s welcome to see Russell Simmons, co-owner and founder of Def Jam Records, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and others involved in the hip-hop music industry at the head of a campaign that uses the appeal of hip-hop to mobilize ordinary citizens, particularly adolescents and young adults, to press for reform of the laws.

This is a vitally important effort for several reasons.

One is that the two latter groups are most “at risk” of, on the one hand, succumbing to the street-level lure of the illicit drug trade, and thus, becoming a statistic of the Rockefeller drug laws; or, in the neighborhoods in which many of them live, becoming an innocent-bystander victim of the variety of crimes associated with the drug trade.

Equally important, however, is the fact that, regardless of their musical tastes, these young people, and society as a whole, can reap enormous benefits from their becoming politically aware and motivated, benefits that can go well beyond the immediate, just campaign of righting what has been a terrible wrong.

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