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Tracking the Formation and Enactment of New Rockfeller Drug Laws

  • December 4, 2013

New York was in the grip of criminals addicted to over dosage of drugs in the 1970s when the then Governor Rockefeller decided to bring in stricter laws to curb the usage of drugs and also to bring the criminals to justice. The law called as the Rockefeller Drug law was enacted in the year 1973. The law mandated that those convicts who are in possession of 4 ounces or more of heroine or cocaine had to undergo 15 years of life imprisonment. But activists started to raise their voice against this law as drug addicts not involved in any criminal activities were given the same treatment as the hard core criminal drug addicts. As a result of the growing opposition, in 2004, the-then New York Governor George Pataki signed the Drug law reform act, which primarily replaces the indeterminate sentencing with a determinate and also to reduce the mandatory minimum prison sentences for possession of drugs. According to the modified drug laws, the highest mandatory punishment was reduced to 8 years from 15 years for an offender with no prior felonies. Harshly convicted drug addicts can also apply for lesser punishment. According to the new Rockefeller drug laws, the weight threshold limited for categorizing in to Level-I and Level-II offenses were also raised. People who were already serving life sentences were permitted to apply for re-sentencing. But still some senators like New York State Senator Paterson were not convinced about the effectiveness of the modified law introduced by Governor George Pataki. The modified laws resulting in serious racial disparity among New York drug offenders.

When Peterson became the Governor of New York in 2009, he started to work on a new legislation that would replace punishment with treatment for non criminal drug addicts and also for first time drug addicts who plead guilty. This resulted in a bill being passed in the state legislature in April 2009. The updated and the New Rockefeller Drug Laws paved the way for judges to use their discretionary powers and send lower level drug offenders to rehabilitation centers and hospitals. The laws were amended to remove the mandatory prison sentencing clauses. The modified New York state drug law was made retroactive in nature thereby allowing the convicted drug addicts to apply for a court resentence and possible release from jail. According to the New York state drug data released in 2008, 40,000 arrests were made in 2008 for possession of cannabis, which is the highest in the country. At the same time, since 2004, the number of prisoners serving Level -I narcotic felonies have come down by half.