Governor Seeks to End Drug Laws and Break Prison Cycle

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Protesters rally against New York's Rockefeller drug laws outside Governor David Paterson's office on March 25, 2009 in New York City. (Getty)

Protesters rally against New York\'s Rockefeller drug laws outside Governor David Paterson\'s office on March 25, 2009 in New York City. (Getty)

Governor Paterson and legislative leaders have announced an agreement to ease New York’s decades-old Rockefeller drug laws, once among the harshest in the nation. Speaking at a news conference in Albany, the governor says they are rolling back many of the mandatory prison terms for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

“Where people are addicted and have committed crimes because of their addiction, we are going to shift our services from punishment to treatment, we are going to eliminate in most cases and severely reduce in other cases, the mandatory minimums that were set by the Rockefeller drug laws.”

The governor further explained the goal to reduce addict recidivism, shown to currently stand at 50 percent. He called the current legal system unjust and ineffective, creating “a revolving door for offenders mired in a cycle of arrest and abuse.”

The new plan to go before the state legislature will shift the sentencing of convicted abusers to new “drug courts” that will oversee their treatment rather than their punishment.

As a reassurance that he is tough on drug crime, the governor also put “king pins” on notice, warning gangs and others who profit from selling drugs to children, that there is also new legislation in the works to increase sentences and penalties in their convictions.

Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, says the change is a victory for judges, who've long felt constrained by mandatory sentencing policies.

"Judicial discretion, with oversight and supervision of treatment alternatives to incarceration, saves money and lives and protects the public we all serve."

Speaker Sheldon Silver added his voice of support to the action, calling the current situation a public health matter and congratulating his colleagues in winning a decade-long fight to reform the Rockefeller laws.

The governor’s office says the agreement will affect 12,000 inmates, who currently cost $500 million a year to incarcerate. Officials did not have details on how much it will cost to send those inmates into drug treatment. Critics of the deal say it's going to result in an increase in crime.