What are the Rockefeller Drug Laws?

Dale Marshall

The Rockefeller drug laws, named after New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were a set of laws enacted in 1973 that imposed the nation's harshest penalties for the sale, possession, and use of illegal drugs. Their expressed intent was to deter the sale or use of such drugs, and to imprison those not deterred. Widely criticized for their severity, they were slowly reformed starting in 1979 and finally replaced completely in 2009.

Heroin was one of the drugs covered by the Rockefeller drug laws.
Heroin was one of the drugs covered by the Rockefeller drug laws.

The original laws imposed mandatory indeterminate penalties of at least 15 years to life for the possession of 4 ounces (114 g) or more of controlled substances, most commonly marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. The same sentences applied to the sale of 2 ounces (57 g) or more. These sentences were more or less the equivalent of those imposed for second degree murder, and judges were permitted no discretion to reduce sentences due to mitigating circumstances. The majority of those convicted under the new laws were low-level street dealers and addicts themselves.

The express intention of the Rockefeller drug laws was to deter the sale of drugs.
The express intention of the Rockefeller drug laws was to deter the sale of drugs.

Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, proposed the laws because in the early 1970s New York was faced with consistently escalating crime rates, and drug arrests in 1972 alone increased by more than 30%. The state had been exploring alternatives to incarceration, especially treatment, but these seemed ineffective. The governor faced escalating calls for harsher punishment of drug offenders, and he finally proposed these tough drug laws. Enacted in 1973 by the legislature after minimal negotiations, they quickly acquired the governor's name in the national lexicon. Some also believe that Rockefeller, seriously considering a run for the White House, was pandering to the "law and order" element within his party.

The Rockefeller drug laws were intended to have a deterrent effect on the sale and use of illegal drugs in the state, but drug arrests continued to climb, and the state's overall crime rate also showed no signs of declining. The laws' severity was useful in persuading some suspects to provide evidence against those they worked for, giving prosecutors tools to go after the criminal organizations and their bosses, who had generally escaped prosecution. The severity of even the minimum sentence, though, gave prosecutors little leeway in plea bargaining.

The impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on the state's prison population was dramatic. Before their enactment, only about 11% of state prisoners were drug offenders, but by the mid-1990s this percentage had climbed to about 35% in a prison population that itself had more than tripled from 20,000 to almost 65,000 prisoners. The overwhelming majority of imprisoned drug offenders, though, were non-violent dealers and addicts. Few major players in the drug trade were convicted under the Rockefeller drug laws.

Criticism of the laws began immediately upon their enactment and came from all points on the political spectrum. One of of the most common points was that they treated a social problem with punishment and jail. In 1979, in its first official response to this criticism, the state repealed that section of the law applying to marijuana, actually decriminalizing the possession of 7/8 oz (24.8 g) or less. It also increased the quantity of controlled substance sold or possessed necessary to trigger the minimum 15-years-to life sentence.

Despite continuing criticism and evidence of their ineffectiveness in combating illegal drug use, the Rockefeller drug laws remained unchanged until 2004, when they underwent the first of two major overhauls. Sentences were reduced, the weights necessary to trigger those sentences were again increased, and felons who had already been sentenced to life in prison were permitted to apply for re-sentencing. The laws were overhauled again in 2009, removing the minimum sentencing mandates altogether and giving judges the discretion to sentence first-time, non-violent offenders to alternative sentences such as treatment. Another major element of the 2009 overhaul allowed everyone who had been sentenced under the previous mandates to apply for re-sentencing or release.

The 2009 overhaul erased any similarity to the severely punitive Rockefeller drug laws. Those laws, in addition to incarcerating addicts and street dealers for extremely long sentences, also imposed unintended societal and fiscal consequences on New York and its taxpayers. For example, black males were jailed disproportionally to their representation in the population, in many cases depriving families of husbands, fathers, and breadwinners. The impact on the economy was also severe, converting many working taxpayers with drug addictions into long-term convicts requiring costly taxpayer-provided maintenance, and sometimes also converting their families to welfare recipients.

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