Paterson Signs Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms

By JIM SCOTT
|  Friday, Apr 24, 2009  |  Updated 2:00 PM EDT
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Paterson Signs Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms

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First time drug offenders may now get sentenced to treatment and counseling instead of jail time.

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Gov. David Paterson signed a new law today reforming the state's 36-year-old Rockefeller Drug laws, long considered among the toughest and most unfair in the country.

“This is a proud day for me and so many of my colleagues who have fought for so long to overhaul the drug laws and restore judicial discretion in narcotics cases,” said Paterson, who was arrested for an act of civil disobedience against the old laws in 2002.

Long deemed among the toughest rules of their kind in the country, the Rockefeller laws imposed mandatory minimum prison requirements in 1973 on low-level drug criminals. Under the law signed today in Queens, judges would, for the first time, have the option of remanding minor felons to treatment rather than the big house.

Judges will now be able to use techniques like treatment and counseling that have proven more effective than prison for low-level offenders. At the same time, penalties have been toughened for drug kingpins.

"We are reforming these laws to treat those who suffer from addiction and to punish those who profit from it,”  Paterson said.

Authorities enacted the harsh laws in New York nearly four decades ago amid widespread heroin use in poor communities. The state’s move prompted a spate of similar legal actions across the nation, but as other states have moved to repeal some of the stricter aspects of the laws, New York had refused to budge -- until now.

The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisions pushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." The strictest provisions were removed in 2004.
   
Critics have long claimed the laws were draconian and crowded prisons with people who would be better served with treatment. The changes eliminate mandatory minimum terms for some low-level nonviolent drug felonies, which could cut the prison population by thousands.

"Rockefeller Drug Law reform will reverse years of ineffective criminal laws, protect communities and save taxpayers millions of dollars that were wasted on the current policy," said State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.

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