Imitated nationwide, New York's 1970s Rockefeller drug laws helped drove up the prison population tenfold and cost the states a fortune, but did nothing to curb the drug trade, the New York Times says in an editorial. They tied the hands of judges and destroyed young lives by requiring long prison terms in cases where leniency and drug treatment were warranted. New York has stopped short of restoring judicial discretion. Gov. Eliot Spitzer seemed to be pushing in that direction when he appointed a commission to study state sentencing practices.
The commission's preliminary report contains valuable recommendations, but the Times says that its superficial treatment of the Rockefeller laws has raised fears among fair-sentencing advocates that the commission intends to duck the issue in its final report, due next spring. The newspaper says that voters deserve a thorough airing of this issue and a full menu of options for reforming the most draconian drug laws the country has yet seen. The report calls for ending New York's system of “indeterminate sentencing,” under which a judge imposes a minimum and a maximum sentence and the parole board decides when to release an offender. It urges a permanent, independent sentencing commission to advise legislators. At their best, says the Times, such panels “help legislatures make rational decisions and avoid disastrous policies that have failed elsewhere, like New York.”