Rockefeller Drug Laws: The end of an error

New York finally overturns the egregious laws that left minor offenders like Elaine Bartlett in prison for 16 years.

Published April 6, 2009 3:40PM (EDT)

On Thursday, after 36 merciless years, New York State put an end to the laws that kicked off the country's three-decade-and-counting prison boom. 

The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted back in 1973, when the state was caught in a crime wave widely associated with the national heroin epidemic. The laws were sold as a way to catch big-time dealers and make sure they served lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key prison sentences. But because they imposed long mandatory minimum jail times for the possession of small amounts of drugs, and removed judges' power to consider mitigating circumstances, they ended up impacting hundreds of thousands of small-time offenders and just-plain drug addicts. One of the state's most famous drug-law offenders was Elaine Bartlett, who won clemency from former governor George Pataki after spending 16 years in prison for a minor role in a single cocaine sale.

The laws inspired copycats across the country, with politicians inventing ever more creative and draconian ways to appear "tough on crime." 90 percent of their victims have been men (nearly all of them from low-income, urban, black and Hispanic communities -- never mind that the US Department of Health reports every year that rates of drug use are consistent across race and class), but drug-war laws have had a particular, and in some ways disproportionate, impact on women. In the early 70s, there were less than 400 women in New York state prisons. Thirty years later, there were several thousand -- only 15 percent of them there for violent offenses. More than half of women imprisoned for drug crimes are convicted of the lowest-level offenses, such as simple possession. More than 88 percent had a substance abuse problem before they went in.

Over the past five years, New York has increased the use of alternative sentences, like drug treatment programs, for addicts and first-time drug offenders. The result has been a reduction in the state's prison population, a savings of millions of dollars and absolutely no increase in crime. Now, with every state in the country facing budget crises, politicians from California to Kansas to New Jersey are having to consider whether laws that keep a cumulative two million people in American prisons are an effective use of resources.

Some of those states will no doubt decide that they'd prefer to crowd prisoners into smaller spaces and cut programs like drug treatment and education for inmates, but still, last week's reform is a huge step, and it just might mark the beginning of slow and protracted end to one of America's most brutal double standard, whereby Jeff Conoway's opiate habit lands him three stints on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," and poor addicts go to straight to prison.

By Abigail Kramer

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