Yesterday the New York State Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill that would essentially eliminate the harsh mandatory minimum sentences created by the Rockefeller drug laws, giving judges discretion to set penalties based on the details of each case and to order probation plus treatment instead of prison. The bill also would allow low-level, nonviolent offenders not covered by earlier reforms to apply for resentencing. Similar legislation has been passed by the Assembly before, but it was always blocked by the Republican-controlled state Senate. With Democrats in charge of the Senate and a Democratic governor who supports sentencing reform, the prospects for abolishing the draconian penalties championed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1970s (anticipating the federal mandatory minimums of the 1980s) look stronger than ever, though not certain.
I discussed the Rockefeller drug laws in a 1999 Reason article about sentencing reform. At the time, a first-time offender convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin or cocaine received a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life—the same as the penalty for second-degree murder. The Drug Law Reform Act of 2004 reduced that minimum to eight years and allowed prisoners serving time under the old provision to apply for resentencing. But only a small share of the prisoners theoretically eligible for resentencing actually received shorter terms, and the law left largely untouched offenders who fell below the 15-year threshold.
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