Ritalin See Methylphenidate Rockefeller Drug Laws

Rockefeller drug laws are a set of New York Mandatory Sentencing statutes for drug crimes. They were proposed by New York's Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller in reaction to a Heroin epidemic in his state. These laws, which took effect on September 1, 1973, require that judges impose lengthy prison sentences on drug traffickers, with a large category of drug offenders receiving life imprisonment. The goal was to deter people from both drug use and trafficking by imposing tough and certain punishments. Although the law was immediately challenged as violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the U.S. and New York constitutions, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the law

Within a few years, however, the state's prison population began to swell, as increasing numbers of defendants were subjected to the provisions of the Rockefeller laws. From 1969 to 1979, the prison population doubled, from 12,000 to 24,000. In the same time period, the percentage of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders increased from 10 percent to over 30 percent. In spite of these laws, the crime rate continued to grow. A major evaluation concluded that neither drug use nor drug trafficking was reduced after the law was passed. The likelihood that a defendant, once arrested, would be incarcerated did not increase—although the likelihood that a defendant, once convicted, would be imprisoned did increase (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, 1977).

The processing of cases became much more expensive for New York. For every crime affected by the law, the percentage of defendants pleading guilty fell, and the proportion of trials increased. The evaluators concluded that it ''took between ten and fifteen times as much court time to dispose of a case by trial as by plea.'' The average time to handle a drug prosecution in New York City, for example, doubled, rising from 172 days in 1973 to 351 days in 1976.

Although the legislature realized the ineffectiveness of the stated purposes of the laws, neither it nor a succession of governors has proposed repealing the laws. Instead, the legislature has sought to amend the laws in ways that reduce their scope. In 1977, the legislature removed marijuana from the definition of crimes dealing with controlled substances and created a new sentencing law for marijuana sale and possession. The possibility of life imprisonment for marijuana offenses was eliminated.

The legislature tinkered with the laws again in 1979. This time it increased the amount of weight of the drug necessary to trigger higher-level felonies. It also reduced the minimum sentence range for certain drug convictions and eliminated a classification from the statute. The 1979 amendments also gave the courts the ability to retroactively resentence defendants who had been convicted based on the original weight and classification schemes.

Despite these changes, they have done little to reduce the harshness of the sentencing practices or reduce the prison population. In 1998, the state prisons held 70,000 inmates, three times the number incarcerated in 1979. Most significantly, 30 percent of the prison population is comprised of nonviolent drug offenders.

By the late 1990s, many in the legal community argued for repeal of the Rockefeller laws, believing that they imposed disproportionate punishment on nonviolent drug offenders and ignored drug treatment options. However, Governor George Pataki responded in 1999 with only a minor change in the laws. Pataki proposed legislation that slightly alters the laws by offering first-time drug couriers a chance to cut their sentences by five years. Under this proposal, the appellate courts would be allowed to review and reduce sentences by five years for firsttime felony offenders under the harshest provision of the laws, which now calls for a maximum of fifteen years to life. This proposal was similar to one proposed by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who also called for allowing trial judges to defer the prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders for up to two years and to divert them to drug treatment programs. However, the legislature did not act on these reform efforts, leaving the status quo in place.

(See also: Drug Laws, Prosecution of; Opioids and Opioid Control: History)


Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation (1977). The nation's toughest drug law: Evaluating the New York experience. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Tsimbinos, S. A. (1999). Is it time to change the Rockefeller drug laws? St. John's Journal of Legal Commentary, 13, 613.

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