It took 35 years.
The New York Legislature finally seems poised to overturn the infamous Rockefeller drug laws. The impending change comes too late for the tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who wasted away in prison because of mandatory sentencing policies when they should have been given treatment and leniency. But after years of building support for reform, legislative leaders now have it within their power to make wholesale changes in this profoundly destructive law.
The Rockefeller laws tied the hands of judges by requiring lengthy prison terms even for first-time offenders. Essentially, the law allowed prosecutors to decide who went to jail and for how long. The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade.The law has been especially disastrous for black and Latino offenders, who represent the overwhelming majority of those held in state prison for drug offenses. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made just that point last week when he criticized a state commission that had been appointed to study the reform issue. The commission, which appears to have been dominated by prosecutors, called for more rational sentencing guidelines and allowing judges to send more offenders to treatment instead of prison. But it failed to get to the heart of the matter, which is a full restoration of judicial discretion.