Making the Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms Real
For 36 years, the Rockefeller drug laws mandated draconian sentences for drug dealers and stripped power from judges, resulting in tens of thousands of mostly black and Latino nonviolent drug offenders being locked away for years, and sometimes life.
After piecemeal changes to the laws earlier in the decade, major reforms in April 2009 gave sentencing discretion back to the judges, and eliminated most of the mandatory minimum sentences for felony drug offenders. Though not fully repealed, the laws now give judges the authority to divert non-violent felons to drug treatment. Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation at the Fund for the City of New York says, “The exciting thing about the Rockefeller reforms is that they will provide the fuel to do what New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has talked about doing for some time: spreading the lessons from New York City’s pioneering drug courts, which link addicted defendants to judicially monitored drug treatment instead of incarceration, throughout the State court system.”
The courts will now have to dramatically change the way they process non-violent drug offenders. A $120,000 grant from The Trust will help the Center for Court Innovation train judges and other court personnel. The Center will develop a curriculum and a training seminar for judges, court attorneys, and clerks in the City, Westchester, and on Long Island and test a drug screening protocol in the Bronx.
Berman continues, “If more judges are going to supervise defendants in treatment, they need to know what they’re doing. They need to understand the nature of addiction, the likelihood of relapse, the impact of drugs on the brain, and the basic elements of behavior modification. They also need to understand federal confidentiality statutes governing those in drug treatment—statutes that have the potential to conflict with the open proceedings that typify criminal court.”
“Translating legislation into concrete action isn’t easy, but this grant will help make the most of the opportunity to treat addiction as a sickness rather than a criminal act,” says Roderick Jenkins, program officer at The Trust. “This is an important step in helping to heal communities that have been ravaged by the Rockefeller drug laws.”