Reform Unjust Drug Laws

By Hugh B. Price


National Urban League


A generation ago, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller got a bright idea about how to fight crime.

Time has proven it to be one of the dumbest and costliest things government has ever done.

Back in 1973, the Governor prevailed upon the state legislature to enact what came to be known as the Rockefeller drug laws. The idea was to sweep drug dealers and abusers off the street, if not for good, then at least for years on end. Petty offenders who possessed as little as four ounces of an illegal substance, or who'd sold as little as two ounces could land in prison for 15 years or longer. It didn't matter whether they were first offenders, or had not hurt anyone, it was off to Attica and Sing Sing for an extended stay.

When the draconian Rockefeller drug laws were enacted, there were 12,000 inmates in New York's 20 prisons.

By 1999, there were 72,000 inmates in the state's 71 prisons—29 percent of whom, 21,000 people, were behind bars for drug crimes.

Now, finally, New York is very likely going to significantly change those laws.

Credit must go to New York Governor George E. Pataki, who late last year declared the drug laws ought to be changed and promised to propose legislation to achieve that. That he did.

Now, the Democratic leadership of the state legislature has brought forth their own proposals for reforming the drug laws—Governor Pataki is a Republican.

Both proposals call for reducing the range of the drug laws' mandatory minimum sentences, expanding the scope of treatment options for offenders, and giving judges more discretion in deciding which drug offenders should be given treatment rather than sent to prison.

The two measures differ substantially in some respects, as one might properly think they would. We look forward to the discussion of those differences in the debate, which has already begun, in the state capitol because what's most important is its underscoring that a solid political consensus has emerged: changes must occur in how best the state can fight the "war" against drugs.

This consensus, it must be said, has come at a great cost.

Some of that cost is evident is the statistics which track the explosive growth of prisons and inmates during the past two decades.

New York was hardly alone in recording such off-the-chart increases. For example, California, which along with New York has the largest number of state-held

prisoners, has spent more than $5 billion building 23 new prisons since 1980. Its need was fueled primarily by its own draconian drug and repeat-offender laws.

Nationally, the country's prison population has soared to 1.9 million, according to a census of the prison population released last week by the Justice Department., although the rate of increase has begun to slow: Eleven states, including California and New York, reported declines in the number of inmates from 1999 to 2000.

That's another bit of good news. But the Justice Department report still offers a lot of information that is alarming—particularly about the profound racial disparities of the prison population. The federal report determined that a record number of black males are incarcerated: 791,600. That means that on any given day, nearly 1 in 8 black males between 20 and 34 are in prison.

In addition, people of color account for 79 percent of the drug offenders in state prisons across the country, according to the report. In New York, 94 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses are black or Hispanic.

One doesn't have to believe that all of those imprisoned for drug offenses are goody two-shoes to understand that those figures tell us something is wrong with America's system of justice—especially since blacks account for only 12-to-14 percent of drug users. Whites are in the overwhelming majority, but they are neither being arrested nor sentenced for it in equal measure.

This racial bias within the criminal justice system is just one of the many things wrong with these drug laws. Equally horrifying is the fact that the get-tough talk about locking people up has never been accompanied by equally-vigorous efforts to institute significant job-training and education programs for prison inmates. So, we've done nothing for two decades to give inmates, thousands upon thousands of low-level drug offenders among them, a fighting chance to go straight when they're released from incarceration.

That's just one of the many reasons to applaud New York's Governor and its state legislators for grabbing this chance to significantly reform New York's harsh—and counterproductive—drug laws. That's makes common sense for the common weal.

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