What you should know about Drop The Rock
The Rockefeller Drug laws are a classic example of why punishment is not the way to go when dealing with drug addiction. For so many years, people didn’t take addiction seriously. Most people didn’t understand that drug addiction is a serious disease that leaves the addicts helpless. When someone is addicted to a particular drug, no amount of threats is going to stop them from using the drug. Punishments won’t work either. They only serve to punish and discriminate against people for a disease that they cannot control instead of getting them the help they need.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. had a serious drug abuse epidemic. The problem was particularly prevalent in major cities such as New York. Other than the addiction problem, the cities were also experiencing increased crime rates and homelessness. Drug peddlers and junkies were spread throughout the different corners of the cities. Addiction being a strong disease, most of these junkies were taking part in petty crimes to get money for their next fix. Meanwhile, the number of gangs involved in the drug business increased. This significantly contributed to the increased crime rate. The cases of homicides also shot up. Everyone could tell that the drug epidemic was quickly getting out of control. This gave birth to the Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDL) that would, later on, come to be recognized as the criminalization of drug use and addiction, which achieved nothing other than bloating the United States prisons and failing hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws started in New York back in 1973. They were signed and named after the then New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller. RDL covered two critical sets of laws. First, it required a minimum sentence for all drug felonies. This basically meant that even if you were caught with as little as 1/2 g of drug, you’d still be incarcerated.
The second set of laws was the Second Felony Offender Law. This law mandated the second incarceration for any felony that is committed within 10 years since the first conviction.
Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, judges were prohibited from using non-incarceration sentences. Therefore, if you were found guilty of any sort of drug felony, you’d still end up serving time regardless of how minor the felony may be. For instance, if you were caught with 2 ounces of a drug, you’d still serve jail time instead of getting referred to say a rehab center or community-based addiction treatment. There was also no room for parole, probation, or plea deals!
By 1983, 49 states across the U.S. had adopted similar mandatory sentencing laws. This resulted in catastrophic outcomes across the U.S., yet it didn’t come anywhere close to fixing the root problem. Crime rates certainly didn’t go down. The number of people addicted to drugs didn’t drop either.
The weird thing is that Nelson Rockefeller had always seen drug abuse as a social issue. He believed that affordable housing, vocational training, and drug rehabilitation was the right approach to solving the drug abuse epidemic in New York. This was definitely the right approach to dealing with the drug problem, but it was never given a chance. The epidemic put so much pressure on the authorities, and in no time, Rockefeller changed his stand. Influenced by various factors, including the zero-tolerance approach from Japan, he started pushing for more stringent laws. The declaration by President Nixon terming drug abuse as America’s Public Enemy Number One also played a crucial role in changing Rockefeller’s stance.
The Impact of Rockefeller Drug Laws
As you can already guess, RDL never solved drug abuse and the social and economic issues that came with it. Instead, the laws ended up impacting so many lives in so many ways, and the effects are still felt to date. On top of all that, it burdened the American taxpayer in several ways.
The first significant impact of RDL was the increased number of convictions. In the early 1980s, the number of people convicted of drug-related offenses was around 40,900. By 2017, the number had skyrocketed to over 450,000. Meanwhile, over 1.6 million people had been arrested for violating drug laws by 2017. What’s worse is the fact that most of these arrests and convictions were due to possession alone, with some being caught with tiny amounts of the drug, yet they all ended up serving time. This showed just how cruel and disproportionately severe the laws were.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws also had massive economic repercussions. To hold 12,000 drug offenders, it costs around $1.5 billion. And that is in building the jails alone. The operating expenses to keep the offenders can get as high as $525 million per year. Considering that almost 50% of these offenders are in prison for low-level felonies, the state can save up to $270 million every year if RDL laws are reformed or repealed. To put it in perspective; the New York State spends $44,000 to keep one offender in prison every year. A decent residential rehab center costs between $17,000 to $21,000 per year. Given that some people were convicted for small amounts of drugs and with no prior criminal record, the state can save even further by enrolling these offenders in outpatient treatment programs that cost anywhere between $2,500 to $5,000. Not only that but rehabilitating drug users will actually end up boosting the economy since they’ll be in a position to engage in different economic activities.
We also cannot ignore the disproportionate demographic representation of the races incarcerated for drug-related offenses. The systemic racism in the criminal justice system and law enforcement over-polices communities of color, and this is clearly seen when you look at the racial distribution of the people arrested. Approximately 46% of the people arrested for drug offenses are Black or Latin. That’s almost half of all the people detained, yet the two races make only 31.5% of the U.S. population.
The high number of incarcerations resulted in an increased number of people with criminal records. It is estimated that over 70 million Americans have criminal records. These records went on to haunt them long after serving their time. As a result, most of these people struggle to rejoin the community and get stable jobs due to these records. It’s really unfair to think that a significant percentage of these people are having a tough time getting stable jobs, education, homes, and raising a family as a result of criminal records for low-class drug offenses.
The Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms
In 2004, the 15 years to life sentence was reduced to 8 years for people without prior convictions. In 2009, New York got rid of the mandatory minimum sentences. This gave judges the right to mandate drug treatment or probation for individuals convicted of some drug offenses.
These reforms were a step in the right direction, even though much damage had already been done. It’s, however, still not enough. A lot is yet to be done to help the individuals whose lives were affected by these laws.
Drug addiction is not a criminal offense. It is a serious disease that demands treatment and not punishment.