Since the Rockefeller Drug Laws were passed in 1973 under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York State has had the harshest sentencing for low-level, non-violent drug offenders of any other state in the nation. Under these laws, those convicted of drug offenses face the same penalties as those convicted of murder, and harsher penalties that those convicted of rape. (Sullum, 1) Though the laws were first enacted to curb the late-1960s-early-1970s psychedelic drug epidemic, New York's drug problem in fact worsened in the 1980s with the use of stimulants, and thus the laws were reformed to be less lenient. These unforgiving laws, which place enormous minimum sentences for drug-sale convictions, prove to be ineffective and expensive and have been criticized as being unfair and unnecessary. The laws have since been reformed under New York Governor George Pataki in 2004, but the changes made were negligible and leave many of the Rockefeller laws' most severe features untouched. Perhaps the reason why the laws have not been further rectified is because they are associated explicitly with New York. If the public only knew how influential these laws are, how they marked change throughout the nation, then there would be more urgency to revoke, to make right our nation’s varying drug laws, and to create one, cohesive protocol by which each state will abide by. This nation needs to explore the major flaws of the Rockefeller Laws, the ineffectiveness of the "reformed" laws and needs to act on the call for alternative sentencing for drug offenders.
New York State has lived for more than thirty years now with the unfair Rockefeller Laws. These racist laws have targeted women and minorities such as Hispanics and blacks. There is no question the Rockefeller Laws are racially biased. "Studies show that the majority of the persons who use and sell drugs in New York State and across the country are white. Yet African Americans and Latinos comprise 91% of drug offenders in New York's prisons. Whites make up only 8%." (Duane, 2) Furthermore, black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at eleven times the rate of white men. The Justice Policy Institute recently released a comprehensive study on the issues of race, poverty, unemployment and selective prosecution within the context of the war on drugs. The statistics on women, particularly women of color, in New York State Prisons is alarming. More than 83% of women sent to state prison report alcohol or substance abuse problems prior to arrest. Between 1973 and 2006, the number of women in New York State prisons increased by approximately 645%. As of January 2006, more than 82% of women drug offenders were women of color, three fourths are mothers. (“Women in Prison”, 1) Many of these women are in need of psychiatric treatment and have childhood histories of severe sexual and/or physical abuse. Clearly, a drug addict is treated better and more efficiently in the community at drug treatment center as opposed to being locked up behind bars and several years later being dropped back on the streets to pick up the pieces of their lives without a support network in place. Elaine Bartlett, first time drug offender and mother of four who was incarcerated for sixteen years for delivering a bag of cocaine to her boyfriend at the age of twenty-six, describes life once released from jail:
…Eventually, we are coming back out into society and you have nothing out here in place for us. Ninety percent is against us. We have 10% working for us. And when you talk about rehabilitation, and you want people to come out and be taxpayers: It’s just unreal, you know. It’s—they spent over a half million dollars to house me for 16 years. They didn’t have to do that. They could have—they could have put me under house arrest. They could have sent me to be educated. They could have helped me become a better mother. They could have used that money towards education. How many families could...
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