40 Years of Tough U.S. Sentencing: How Rockefeller Drug Laws Were Born


NPR takes a look back 40 years ago at a “moment when one of the seeds of the modern prison system was planted.” Then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had seen drugs as a social problem and backed treatment, changed his mind. As NPR recounts it, “the political mood was hardening. President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs, and movies like The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park helped spread the sense that America’s cities were unraveling.”

In 1972, says a Rockefeller aide, Joseph Persico, Rockfeller decided, “For drug pushing, life sentence, no parole, no probation.” Persico says Rockefeller decided that more progressive approaches to drug addiction had simply failed. The governor had heard about this new, zero-tolerance approach to crime while studying Japan’s war on drugs. “And we all looked a little bit shocked, and one of the staff said, ‘Sounds a little bit severe.’ And he said, ‘That’s because you don’t understand the problem.’ And then we realized he was very serious,” Persico says. Rockefeller launched his campaign in January 1973 — almost exactly 40 years ago. He called for something unheard of: mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts — even those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.

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