Drugs and Human Rights

Reforming the Rockefeller Drug laws

Take Action Now! Write Gov. Pataki and NY State Legislators

Human Rights Watch supports comprehensive reform of New York’s extraordinarily punitive mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenders, commonly called the Rockefeller drug laws. The state should enact sensible and fair drug sentencing legislation that will dramatically reduce prison sentences for low-level drug offenders - whether buyers, users or sellers, whether fist-time or repeat offenders. Judges should have the discretion to determine which punishment best fits a drug crime, reserving prison for serious, dangerous offenders. And the law should encourage the increased use of alternatives to incarceration - whether substance abuse treatment programs or community-based sanctions - for offenders who pose no appreciable threat to public safety.

For thirty years, the Rockefeller drug laws have curtailed judicial discretion and mandated prison sentences for almost all drug offenses. Excessively long and unnecessary prison sentences have filled New York’s expensive prisons with low level drug offenders - men and women who sell drugs on the street, who are couriers, who occupy the lowest ranks in drug organizations. Few of those incarcerated are drug kin pins or major traffickers. Imprisonment deprives inmates of their liberty, families, friends, jobs and communities. It reduces their subsequent income and employability and can wreck havoc on their families’ financial and social stability. An estimated 124,496 children have had at least one parent imprisoned at some point since 1980 on drug charges.

Many of the more than 150,000 prison sentences handed down to drug offenders have been so disproportionate to the crime - mostly retail street sales and other minor drug offenses - that they violate basic principles of justice and internationally recognized human rights.

The stark racial impact of drug law enforcement in New York also raises fundamental questions about the state’s commitment to equal protection of the laws and racial equality: ninety-four percent of the people sentenced under the drug laws are black or Hispanic. Black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at eleven times the rate of white men. Most drug arrests occur in lower income, primarily minority urban areas, even though whites use drugs at approximately the same rate as blacks.

In early 1991, Governor George Pataki gave new life to long-stalled efforts to reform the Rockefeller drug laws by announcing his support for reform. Nevertheless, two years later, Albany has still failed to enact the much needed overhaul of the state’s drug sentencing laws. Unfortunately, the Governor and the Senate have supported legislation that would retain many of the worst features of the Rockefeller laws, retaining a structure of mandatory sentences, leaving low level nonviolent offenders vulnerable to excessive sentences, and retaining the undue power of prosecutors over sentencing and diversion decisions. The Assembly has proposed legislation that goes much further toward the needed reforms.

HRW Responses to Legislative Proposals in 2001

HRW Publications

Collateral Casualties: Children of Incarcerated Drug Offenders in New York
Report, June 2002

Cruel And Usual
Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders

Report, March 1997

Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs
Report, June 2000

The Path to Prison: A Response to The Governor's Assessment of Drug Offender Incarceration Rates
Briefing paper, May 13 1999

Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses? A Rebuttal to the New York State District Attorneys Association

Official Data Reveal Most New York Drug Offenders Are Nonviolent
Backgrounder, January 1999


Drop the Rock, Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws

The Correctional Association of New York

Drug Policy Alliance

William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice