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Gov. Pataki Offers Reform of New York Drug Laws; 
Democratic Assembly Leader Rejects Offer, Fears 
"Soft on Crime" Label


Summer 1999

On May 3, New York Governor George Pataki (R) offered a modest proposal to reform New York State's harsh Rockefeller drug laws (Raymond Hernandez, "Pataki Asks For Easing Of Drug Laws," New York Times, May 4, 1999; John Caher, "Pataki Unveils a Vision of Justice," Albany Times Union, May 4, 1999; Yancey Roy, "Pataki Proposes Some Easing of Drug Sentences," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 4, 1999).

The Rockefeller drug laws, named after Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R), who pushed for the laws in 1973, are among the harshest in the U.S. For example, a person convicted of selling more than two ounces, or possessing more than four ounces, of cocaine or heroin must be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. According to the Correctional Association of New York, there are more than 22,300 drug offenders in New York State prisons, at a current annual cost of $715 million. Nearly 60% of all women inmates in New York State are incarcerated for drug offenses.

Pataki's proposal would allow an appeals court to reduce prison terms up to a third for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, expand drug treatment alternatives, and allow trial judges, with the consent of the prosecutor, to divert some drug defendants to substance abuse programs instead of prison. Pataki's tied his reform proposal to a measure to eliminate parole for all felons, a proposal which Democrats, who control the state Assembly, vigorously oppose. Pataki also proposed fixed sentences for felons and an increase in sentence length for drug "kingpins."

Announcement of Pataki's proposal coincided with the release of a study that found the Rockefeller drug laws are not incarcerating mostly nonviolent, low-level, first-time offenders. The study by Pataki's commissioner of criminal justice, Katherine Lapp, found that 87% of the roughly 22,000 persons incarcerated for drug offenses are imprisoned not for drug possession, but for selling or intending to sell drugs. Of the 13% who are incarcerated for drug possession, 76% were arrested for selling drugs and pleaded down to drug possession, according to the study. Of those arrested in 1996 who had drug-only arrests in their background, most had extensive criminal records: They averaged 2.5 prior felony arrests and 2.2 prior misdemeanor arrests (Associated Press, "Pataki Report Says Most Drug Offenders Have Broad Criminal Histories," May 3, 1999).

Commissioner Lapp said that only one-tenth of persons convicted of drug charges in New York State were sentenced to state prison. She said the vast majority were sent to local jails, given probation, sent into alternatives to incarceration programs, or treatment programs. "You really have to earn your way into state prison," said Commissioner Lapp. She said the study shows that "it's very difficult the first time around or even the second time around to end up in prison."

Defenders of the Rockefeller drug laws say they are an effective means to coerce offenders into drug treatment programs, such as the Drug Treatment Alternatives to Prison (D-TAP) program. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who started the D-TAP program in 1990, said, "D-TAP couldn't work if we didn't have the hammer of mandatory sentencing" (Editorial, "The Rockefeller Drug Laws," Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1999).

On May 19, Patricia Lynch, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), said Silver would not allow the Assembly to vote on Pataki's proposal or any other reform proposal "at this time" because his Democratic colleagues in suburban and rural districts would be labeled as "soft on crime." Many Democrats, who have long advocated reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, criticized Silver's position. In addition, Silver said he would not agree to any crime package that fails to include a ban on assault weapons, a measure that Pataki and Assembly Republicans oppose (Raymond Hernandez, "In Switch, Democrats Won't Act on Pataki Plan to Ease Drug Laws," New York Times, May 20, 1999; Lara Jakes, "Drug Law Debate Blocked," Albany Times Union, May 21, 1999).

"The Democrats are right to reject the Governor's proposal," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. "Mr. Pataki's [plan] would not repeal the laws but merely allow a very small number of first-time drug felons probably fewer than 300 people who have received mandatory minimum 15-year sentences to ask an appellate court to reduce their sentences to 10 years" (Editorial, "Mr. Silver's Silence on Reform," New York Times, June 3, 1999).

Despite the stalemate, Silver and Pataki suggested the possibility of continued discussion of the drug law reform issue. In a meeting with his Democratic conference in late May, Silver said he was opposed only to Pataki's proposal but is open to some reform ("Silver Softens Drug Law Stance," Albany Times Union, May 27, 1999). A few days later Pataki said he is willing to "sit down and talk" with Assembly Democrats about the drug law reforms (Lara Jakes, "Pataki Opens Door for Deal on Drug Laws," Albany Times Union, June 4, 1999).


In May, a survey of 700 likely voters throughout New York, conducted by Zogby New York, a prestigious polling firm, found most voters support reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. A majority (50.7%) said they would be more likely to vote for state legislators who favor reducing some sentences for drug offenses and giving judges greater sentencing discretion. More than 6 out of every 10 respondents (63.9%) said they do not consider a legislator who supports reducing sentences for drug offenders to be "soft on drugs." Almost three quarters (73.8%) of respondents said persons charged with simple possession of an illegal drug should receive treatment instead of incarceration ("Poll Finds Support for Drug Law Reform," Albany Times Union, May 22, 1999; Press Release, "Voters Support Legislators Who Favor Reduced Drug Sentencing; Such Legislators Not Labeled `Soft on Drugs,' Zogby Poll Shows," Zogby New York, May 20, 1999).


In remarks in Albany, "drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey called for more drug treatment and less prison sentences. "Even those who helped pass the Rockefeller-era laws now have serious concerns that these laws have caused thousands of low-level and first-time offenders to be incarcerated at high cost for long sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes," he said (Christopher Wren, "White House Drug Chief Critical of N.Y. Laws," New York Times, June 29, 1999).

In a press release in advance of the Albany speech, McCaffrey said: "Our current approach to the problem of drugs and crime has eroded the confidence of those communities that often most need the protection of law enforcement. . . Even in the face of the threat of drugs to their families and communities, some see greater risks in the perceived injustices of the system than from the threat of drugs. This loss of confidence stems from the impact our counter-drug laws have had on the current generation, in particular young black males. . .We must now reexamine the effectiveness of our criminal justice system in addressing drug use and drug-related crime" (Press Release, "White House Drug Czar Makes Major Speech on Substance Abuse and the Criminal Justice System," Office of National Drug Control Policy, June 29, 1999).

Commissioner Lapp disagreed strongly with McCaffrey, accusing him of "an ignorance" of New York law. Lapp walked out of the state-sponsored conference on drug abuse treatment before McCaffrey finished his speech. Reportedly, McCaffrey did not deliver his prepared remarks and did not comment directly on New York's drug laws because of the boycott by Lapp (Tracy Tully, "Pataki Official Blasts Bill's Drug Czar," New York Daily News, June 30, 1999).

In a letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times on May 7, Laurance S. Rockefeller, the brother of Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose administration adopted the harsh drug laws, wrote: "The reality is that we have far too many people in jail for too long for relatively minor offenses as a result of stringent drug laws. Those who were not criminals before are often turned into criminals as a result of their incarceration. Families are destroyed, creating another dysfunctional generation. And the economic cost to society is enormous." Rockefeller concluded, "I believe that in light of current knowledge, my brother. . .would today be open to a thoughtful review of the drug policy issue" (Laurance S. Rockefeller, "Rethink Drug Laws? Rockefeller Would," New York Times, May 7, 1999).

In an editorial, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote: "All across the country, citizens and lawmakers are changing their minds about the merit of punitive drug laws and recognizing that treatment programs are the smartest and most effective way to fight drug abuse. While there are strong signs that New Yorkers also support such a policy shift, Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders remain too willing to stick with what doesn't work" (Editorial, "Shift Policy on Drug Abuse," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 14, 1999).

Representing five million New Yorkers, leaders of the Catholic Church in New York called for reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, calling the sentences mandated by the law "ineffective and unduly restrictive." Led by John Cardinal O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Bishops of New York wrote to Pataki and the Legislature: "As moral teachers, we believe the time has come, after a quarter-century of experience, to urge all New Yorkers to advocate for a more humane and effective system to rehabilitate addicts and protect public safety" (Lara Jakes, "Catholic Church Leaders Urge Drug Law Reform," Albany Times Union, June 15, 1999).

Governor George Pataki - State Capitol, Albany, NY 12224, Tel: (212) 681-4580, Fax: (212) 681-4608.

Commissioner Katherine Lapp - New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, 633 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10017, Tel: (212) 681-4608, Fax: (212) 681-6215.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver - LOB 932 / CAP 349, Albany, NY 12248, Tel: (518) 455-3791, E-mail: <>.

Correctional Association of New York - 135 E. 15th St., New York, NY 10003, Tel: (212) 254-5700.

Zogby New York - 1750 Genesee St., Utica, NY 13502, Tel: (315) 624-0200, Web: <>.

Cardinal John O'Connor - Archdiocese of New York, 1011 First Ave., New York, NY 10022-4134, Tel: (212) 371-1000, Web: <>.