Supporters, Critics Assess Rockefeller Drug Law Reform

It's been a year since New York's legislature approved sweeping changes to the strict Rockefeller drug laws, and state officials are offering an upbeat assessment of the reforms. The reform granted judges the discretion to give low-level offenders lighter sentences or send them to rehabilitation.

Sean Byrne, acting commissioner of the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, testified at an Assembly committee hearing in Manhattan. "The impact of this reform after the first year is both dramatic and well-documented," he said. "One thousand fewer people went to prison in the first year. And more are participating in treatment." Byrne also said 442 offenders have been re-sentenced, and nearly 350 of those have been released since judges were given more discretion in sentencing.

Judge Judy Harris Kluger, policy head for the state's Unified Court System, said the reform has had a big impact during its first year. "More offenders are eligible for and are being diverted into treatment than ever before," she said.  

She said the courts have been able to keep up with the new workload by hiring new staff and buying drug testing equipment, thanks to federal stimulus funds. "However, as you know, these are two-year grants, and continued fiscal support for the courts and other agencies is essential once the stimulus funding is exhausted," she told the committee. Kluger is urging lawmakers to push for continued funding.  

Legal aid lawyers and other advocates testified that the local social service agencies that work with offenders diverted to treatment programs also need more support from the state. They also said there hasn't been enough coordination between state agencies and community organizations to help those who are released or diverted to treatment.

Gabriel Sayegh, of the Drug Policy Institute, said the state needs to give lawyers and judges more information about the changes. "From Buffalo to Long Island, we find significant confusion and disagreement about what drug law reform means, frustration with the real -- or perceived -- lack of coordination between state agencies in its implementation, and annoyance at the repeated instances of one agency saying one thing, and another one saying something entirely contradictory," he said.

Sayegh said social service providers are also confused and need more help guiding ex-convicts through the new treatment requirements, so they don't violate the terms of their sentences and end up back behind bars.