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New York set to repeal Rockefeller Drug laws

March 26, 2009

Interesting timing for a New York Times story detailing Governor David Paterson’s determination to repeal the infamous Rockefeller Drug laws. With Hillary Clinton in Mexico pledging assistance in tackling the border violence and admitting that US demand for illegal drugs has driven the drug trade, New York is dismantling what became known as the Rockefeller laws of the 1970’s which provide severe mandatory minimum jail sentences including a mandatory one year minimum for simple possession of cocaine. According to Jeremy Peters

ALBANY — Gov. David A. Paterson and New York legislative leaders have reached an agreement to dismantle much of what remains of the state’s strict 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the nation.

Opponents of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws held a rally outside the governor’s office in Manhattan on Wednesday.

The deal would repeal many of the mandatory minimum prison sentences now in place for lower-level drug felons, giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison.

The plan would also expand drug treatment programs and widen the reach of drug courts at a cost of at least $50 million.

New York’s drug sentencing laws, imposed during a heroin epidemic that was devastating urban areas nearly four decades ago, helped spur a nationwide trend toward mandatory sentences in drug crimes. But as many other states moved to roll back the mandatory minimum sentences in recent years, New York kept its laws on the books, leaving prosecutors with the sole discretion of whether offenders could be sent to treatment.

Some might say that the US is sending mixed messages about drug use, with the repeal of New York’s drug laws at the same time as Hillary Clinton is in Mexico pledging assistance in curbing drug trafficking. But, leaving aside that New York state policy is independent of US Federal law, the repeal of mandatory minimum sentence laws is meant to ameliorate the very worst law enforcement excesses and will have little or no effect on the trafficking which is at the heart of the Mexican violence. It is a reflection of the damage that mandatory minimum sentences have caused, along with the proven track record of less-expensive, less-disruptive, more effective treatment options and specially designed drug courts, that politicians feel safe in taking what would in the past have been described as a “soft on crime” position on sentencing.

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