Russell Simmons

Effects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws

Few good things come from the combination of political ambition and public panic.  When lawmakers leverage that panic to further their own careers, the most vulnerable citizens often feel the effects.  This was the case with New York’s misguided Rockefeller Drug Laws.

From 1959 to 1973, Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York.  A Republican with progressive leanings, Rockefeller was originally a proponent of treating drug addiction as a social problem best solved by rehabilitation, housing, and job training strategies.  As the American public became increasingly concerned with drug crime, pressure mounted on lawmakers to adopt harsher consequences for offenders convicted of drug related crimes. With his eye on a Presidential bid, Rockefeller abandoned his progressive attitude toward drug crimes in favor of strict penalties to appeal to a frightened public.  On May 8, 1973, Rockefeller signed into law a policy that mandated a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life, for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin, opium, cocaine, morphine, or marijuana. What this essentially meant was, a conviction for a non-violent drug offense carried the same consequences as second degree murder.

In the years following the implementation of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York saw an explosion in its prison population.  In spite of the harsher sentences for drug convictions, crime rates did not drop. The law had no discernible effect on the cimes it was meant to deter.  Instead of taking down drug kingpins as intended, the law was mainly used to incarcerate young men and women in impoverished neighborhoods.

Additionally, the Rockefeller Drug Laws disproportionately targeted young minority males.  By taking away a judge’s discretion in sentencing, people who should have been able to receive treatment were instead sent to prison for a minimum of 15 years for non-violent offences.  Recidivism rates increased and spending on the NYS prison system more than doubled. The percentage of black and Latino men and women incarcerated for drug offences skyrocketed, impacting families in drastic ways.  Overall, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were seen as a disastrous result of the failed “War on Drugs.”

It took over three decades, but the Rockefeller Drug Laws were finally moderated by Governor George Pataki in December of 2004.  Increasingly vocal criticism from activists, including Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons (who spent $100,000 of his own money on this cause) helped to finally bring much needed changes to the law.  Simmons credited the momentum for change on “enthusiastic young people,” he said. ”I think the hip-hop community is moving toward a more conscious space.” He added, ”We need young, honest hearts and ideas involved in this process, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”  

The moderated New York law reduced the minimum penalty for conviction on the most serious  drug charge in New York from 15 years to life, to 8 years in prison, for an offender with no prior felonies.  Previously convicted persons were able to apply for reduce sentences under the new law. Since 2004, the number of prisoners incarcerated for drug felonies has been reduced by more than half.  

Many people see the moderation of the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a first step toward policies that are more effective in helping people who are addicted to drugs turn their lives around.  However, much work still needs to be done to bring equality to the justice system.