New York State’s decision to reform its strict, 36-year-old drug laws, including eliminating tough mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, reflects something of a national shift away from criminal penalties to public health and treatment in America’s decades-old fight against illegal drug use, says the Washington Post. The “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” named after former governor Nelson Rockefeller, are among the nation’s strictest and for critics have become a symbol of the failure of the “war on drugs,” which locked up large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders while having little apparent effect on drug use.
“There’s a broader trend picking up steam around the country to roll back the drug war,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group for alternative drug laws. Mandatory sentences, that led to burgeoning prison populations and a spurt of building of new prisons, he said, “happened as a result of the drug war hysteria.” The changes in New York, which must be finalized by legislative votes, would repeal most mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders and give judges broader discretion over sentencing. The state plans to use money from the recently enacted federal stimulus law to expand drug treatment. The changes would allow some among a group of 1,500 prisoners to apply for release, if they are nonviolent and have not been convicted of other crimes. The changes were strongly opposed by state prosecutors and district attorneys, who argued that they needed mandatory sentences as a tool to get offenders to plead guilty to lesser crimes.