Rockefeller Drug Laws

Rockefeller Drug Laws

Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington

The Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted in 1973, imposed mandatory minimum prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. The laws sought to frighten drug users by imposing harsh penalties. These penalties would also take drug dealers off the streets, preventing them from engaging in criminal activity for many years. The Rockefeller Drug Laws were also intended to reduce robberies, burglaries, and other crimes commonly associated with addiction. The laws marked a shift toward addressing illegal drug use through the criminal justice system rather than as a health care issue. Critics challenged this shift from the start and the debate continues. Critics also questioned penalties for possession that equaled the penalty for second-degree murder. The laws also drew opposition from civil rights advocates who argued that the laws would be applied inordinately to African-Americans and Latinos.

The new sentencing guidelines had a dramatic impact. New York’s prison population grew from 12,500 in 1973 to 71,500 in 1999. Drug offenders as a percentage of New York’s prison population surged from 11% in 1973 to a peak of 35% in 1994. The Rockefeller Drug Laws became the template for implementing other drug policies dominated by “get tough” attitudes toward drug use and criminal activity associated with use and distribution. The tough on crime mentality that served as a foundation for the Rockefeller Laws stretched beyond the war on drugs as a mandatory sentencing movement swept the country, including “three-strikes” legislation in several states, eventually raising the nationwide prison population to over 2.3 million.

An early evaluation of the Rockefeller Laws was highly critical. The 1978 evaluation, issued by the Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, found that the law was failing on several fronts despite the expenditure of $76 million. Drug felony arrests, indictment rates, and conviction rates all declined between 1972 and 1976. The proportion of drug felony dispositions resulting from trials tripled during this time period and the average time for processing of a case doubled. Heroin use and heroin-related crime was as widespread in 1976 as it was before the Rockefeller laws. The percentage of drug felony arrests resulting in indictments dropped from 39.1 to 25.4 percent and the likelihood of conviction after indictment declined from 87.3 to 79.3 percent (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, 1978).

The evaluation also highlighted stresses being placed on the justice system. Since many fewer defendants were willing to plead guilty, the percentage of drug felonies disposed of by trial rather than guilty plea rose from 6 to 17 percent between 1972 and 1976. As a result, the average case processing time increased from 172 to 351 days. Pressures on the corrections system were also increasing as courts were forced to impose stronger sentences. Between 1972 and 1974 only 3 percent of New York drug felons received minimum sentences longer than 3 years. Prisons began to fill as 22 percent of those sentenced under the new law received sentences longer than 3 years. Use of alternative sanctions also decreased as the likelihood that a person convicted of a drug felony in New York State would receive a prison sentence grew from 33.8 to 54.8 percent (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, 1978).

In response to this evaluation, and the criticism accompanying the report, the New York legislature amended the laws to increase the amount of drugs needed to trigger the 15-year to life sentence. The laws went unchanged until 1988, when concern over “crack” cocaine led to a lowering of the weight threshold for cocaine possession. In spite of continued criticism, the tough on crime mentality underlying many political decisions allowed the Rockefeller Drug Laws to remain essentially unchanged for the next 20 years.

The State of New York began reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws in October 2008. In announcing the reform, Gov. David Patterson said, “Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, we did not treat the people who were addicted; we locked them up under some of the nation’s harshest sentences. Families were broken, money was wasted and we continued to wrestle with the statewide drug problem.” The 2008 reforms sought to give judges the discretion to send individuals into treatment and mental health services. In addition, people incarcerated under the old laws for nonviolent drug offenses earned the right to petition the court for resentencing. If approved by a judge, many of those serving mandatory sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws will finally be released.

For more information:

Human Rights Watch (2009). Barred from treatment: Punishment of drug users in New York state prisons. Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch.

Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation. 1978. The nation’s toughest drug law: Evaluating the New York experience. Project of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the Drug Abuse Council, Inc. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Tonry, M. (2009). “The mostly unintended effects of mandatory penalties: Two centuries of consistent findings.” Crime and Justice, 38 (65).