Significant Revisions to Rockefeller Drug Laws Will Affect Hundreds of NYC Cases
Bill Gibney

William Gibney, Head of the Criminal Practice Special Litigation Unit, hailed the significant changes taking place today on the Rockefeller Drug Laws, once among the harshest drug laws in the country.

"The revisions will affect hundreds of New Yorkers and their families," Gibney said. "Some 270 New York City cases may be affected." Hundreds of petitions to Criminal Court judges requesting resentencing under the new lesser penalties will be filed over the next several weeks. Gibney's comments were reported by the Associated Press and New York Public Radio.

NY drug law reforms kick in, treatment stressed
October 7, 2009

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Hundreds of low-level drug offenders in New York prisons became eligible Wednesday for shortened sentences or release under recent changes in state law. Gov. David Paterson and lawmakers agreed in April to revise the Rockefeller-era drug laws, once among the harshest in the nation and in the vanguard of a movement more than 30 years ago toward mandatory prison terms. They argued that lower-level offenders would be better served by addiction treatment rather than prison.

"Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, we did not treat the people who were addicted. We locked them up," Paterson said Wednesday at the Brooklyn Court House. "Families were broken, money was wasted, and we continued to wrestle with a statewide drug problem."

The changes that took effect Wednesday allow resentencing some inmates and give judges discretion to start sending some new offenders to drug treatment or shock programs instead of prison.

In 1973, then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller persuaded lawmakers to pass tough mandatory sentencing laws, saying they were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." The strictest provisions were removed in 2004.

New York Legal Aid Society lawyer Bill Givney said Tuesday his office has about 270 New York City cases among the roughly 1,100 inmates statewide identified by state officials as eligible for resentencing and has been examining records to verify their status. "We're certainly ready to file quite a number of petitions in the near future," he said.

Once petitions are filed at the defendants' original criminal courts, prosecutors have a chance to respond, then it's up to the judge to schedule a proceeding and rule, Givney said. The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocated the changes, has been meeting with agencies and treatment providers to try to ensure released inmates get the addiction, mental health and other services they need to return to life outside prison, said Gabriel Sayegh, director of the alliance's state organizing and policy project.

New York's prisons had 59,053 inmates Wednesday, with another 708 at the Willard Drug Treatment Center and 80 at a residential treatment facility for parole violators, corrections spokeswoman Linda Foglia said. Under another change that took effect in July, more than 100 inmates, including some in their 40s, were transferred from general prison populations to six-month military-style boot camp programs.

Poughkeepsie Journal (Gannett)
October 7, 2009
Drug law changes focus on treatment for nonviolent offenders
Cara Matthews
Journal Albany bureau

ALBANY — Amendments to the much-criticized Rockefeller-era drug laws that took effect today give judges discretion to place non-violent drug offenders into treatment over incarceration, greatly expand addiction-treatment programs and enable some prisoners sentenced under the old law to petition for release.

“Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, we did not treat the people who were addicted; we locked them up under some of the nation’s harshest sentences. Families were broken, money was wasted and we continued to wrestle with the statewide drug problem,” Gov. David Paterson said in a statement.

"The reforms that take effect today address those problems. By returning judicial discretion to the courtroom, we are reuniting families and fighting criminal activity and addiction in our communities,” he said.

The new law eliminates some mandatory minimum sentences by judges and gives them the option of allowing eligible drug- or alcohol-addicted defendants to participate in a treatment program supervised by the courts.

Judges can make these decisions over the objections of prosecutors, which led the state District Attorneys Association to oppose the legislation. The group said there are no clear standards set for drug treatment and criticized other aspects of the changes.

About 1,500 non-violent felons who were sentenced under the old Rockefeller-era drug laws now have the option of filing petitions for re-sentencing. Approximately half of them are from New York City.

Reforms that the state made to the Rockefeller-era drug laws in 2004 and 2005 did not help these prisoners, who have been serving longer sentences than what they would receive now, said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance.

“These are folks that basically got lost in the reforms. Many of them should never have gone to prison in the first place,” he said. “They should have had diversion or treatment.”

The Drug Policy Alliance expects many of the prisoners who petition for re-sentencing will be released, Sayegh said. Legal defense, social and human services agencies have been collaborating in recent months to make sure all of them have reentry plans for obtaining housing, jobs, training, treatment and other services once they are released back into the community, he said.

The Rockefeller-era drug laws in the 1970s became a model for a criminal-justice approach to drugs in the country, but that has changed, Sayegh said.

“We think with New York moving in this new direction, New York may become the model for what a public health-oriented approach to drug policy will look like,” he said.