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Rockefeller Drug Law Reform and Drug Courts

by Jaime Adame, Jan 06, 2005
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When Governor George Pataki focused on crime in his 11th State of the State address, he talked about his plans to handle crime in the future -- creating a "New York's 100 Most Wanted" Web site; pushing an "aggressive anti-crime package, dealing with issues ranging from deadly drivers and gun trafficking to strengthening Megan's Law, and yes - ensuring that our state has a strong death penalty law." And he boasted of his decade-long track record in handling crime -- "108 new laws that toughened penalties or closed criminal-friendly loopholes."

But in his entire speech, he made no mention whatsoever of New York's so-called Rockefeller drug laws.

These laws, which include strict penalties for first-time drug offenders, have been criticized as unfair and unnecessary, and activists have lobbied state officials to revoke them. Finally, in December, after about a decade of trying, and just a couple of weeks before Pataki's speech, the legislature passed a measure to reform the laws. Now, more than 400 prisoners can apply for their freedom, and felons guilty of less serious crimes will get reduced sentences.

But the underlying problems remain - how to stop drug-related crime; what to do about drug-induced criminals. Nearly two-thirds of all prisoners in jail for drug-related offenses are repeat offenders.

Within the criminal justice system, there is an option being viewed more and more favorably, one that does not include prison time, and that many advocates hope to expand. That option is drug court - something else that Pataki did not mention in his speech.

The Rockefeller Law Reform

The Rockefeller drug laws were passed in the 1970s (under then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller), but the drug problem became even worse in the 1980s, spurring a second wave of tough drug laws that ensnared even more drug users and sellers.

Activists who criticized the lock-em-up approach focused on the sad stories of young people seemingly tripped up by their own personal problems more than any calculated plans to make an illicit profit, sentenced to more than 15 years.

Those tragedies may happen but "the lion's share of drug arrests are buy-and-bust operations that target $10 and $20 drug sales," said Valerie Raine, director of drug treatment programs for the Center for Court Innovation, the research group that advises the New York State Court System.

There are 15,600 drug felons in New York State prisons, according to the state Department of Correctional Services. Only about 2,600 of them are guilty of the most serious felonies, called Class A felonies.

Of the remaining 13,000, most (more than 9,800) are repeat offenders guilty of lesser crimes (so-called Class B, C and D crimes).

What the new reforms passed in December will do is reduce the sentences for certain non-violent offenders guilty of a Class B felony, from the current sentences of up nine years to as little as three years.

Drug Courts

Mike Magnani remembers what it was like before there were drug courts in New York City. First-time offenders guilty of small-time drug dealing did, pled or said whatever they had to do in order "to get out the door" and get back to the street, where they could feed their drug habit. Not too surprisingly, most would soon be back. Their second conviction would lead to serious jail time.

The first drug court, the Brooklyn Treatment Court, began in 1996, and it took a different approach -- treating people addicted to drugs before they became repeat offenders facing mandatory time in state prison. Drug users and sellers received supervised treatment instead of jail time. To be eligible for treatment in drug court, however, the defendants had to be found clinically addicted through a screening process, and had to plead guilty. Not every offender is eligible.

Drug courts have now expanded beyond Brooklyn to all five boroughs. Treatment typically lasts more than a year, with frequent trips to the judge to monitor progress. Judges use punishment as a motivator for offenders to complete the treatment program. A first slip-up might mean a weekend in jail; another slip-up three or four days. Positive reinforcement is also part of the program. "The judge becomes more than just the authority figure in court, if he says you're doing a good job, that means a lot to these people," said Magnani, who worked to help expand the Brooklyn Treatment Court, and continues to be involved in drug courts as the director of grants and program development for the New York State Court System.

A three-year study by the Center for Court Innovation found that New York drug courts sharply reduced recidivism rates. While treatment programs do exist within New York prisons, Raine said research has been done that shows treatment done outside of prison has a better success rate. Some research suggests that two thirds of drug felons are rearrested within three years after being released from prison.

Non-Adversarial; Not Perfect

Drug courts have grown in popularity, and in 2000 New York became the first state to announce a program that would greatly expand drug court to include nearly all non-violent criminals addicted to drugs.

A drug court is now operating in every New York county. About 7,000 New Yorkers have participated in drug court since its inception. There were 3,384 referrals to New York City drug courts in 2003, with 1030 pleas taken. If drug courts could theoretically now handle as many as 10,000 non-violent criminals a year statewide, drug courts have not handled nearly as much, said Raine.

Some see the next step as expanding drug court beyond drug cases. In New York, a new program began last year in Brooklyn called STEP, an acronym for Screening and Treatment Enhancement Part. The program expanded the criteria for drug court eligibility to include people accused of non-drug crimes. Magnani said that a similar program is scheduled to begin in the Bronx.

Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, has for years spoken out against the Rockefeller drug laws. He said that he hadn't studied New York drug courts closely, but "we have a generally favorable impression. The problem with the drug courts is that the decision about who is eligible…is controlled by the prosecutors."

Raine said that New York City offered a more formalized screening process to decide who should be eligible for drug court, but "at the end of the day, [the decision] lies with prosecutors." And prosecutors differ in their willingness to partner with drug courts. "In Brooklyn, [District Attorey Charles] Hynes has been a great partner and believer of treatment,"said Magnani. Hynes introduced a separate program apart from drug court called Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison in 1990, which gave repeat offenders facing mandatory prison time an option of residential treatment instead of prison.

Magnani said an important part of a successful drug court is that prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and defendants must all agree on what the best course of action is. "We try to make the courtroom non-adversarial…we don't want lawyers arguing…If an addict hears that type of stuff, they think there's a crack that they can get through."

But it can be difficult to get all the players to buy in to the drug court concept. "If there is a first-time offender with a misdemeanor, there is no way a defense attorney is going to say, 'You need a year of treatment,'" said Raine.

Nevertheless, misdemeanor drug courts exist in New York City (treatment might typically last 90 days, said Magnani). Another type of drug court would work with youthful offenders. But Magnani cautioned that the typical drug court candidate was in their late 20s, and that the graduated punishment and reward system that works for adults might not be the best way to treat a younger population.

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