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Governor signs Rockefeller Drug Law reforms

“With the stroke of a pen, we will end the regime of the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” Governor David Paterson declared shortly before putting his pen to paper and, amid a flurry of flashbulbs, ceremonially reforming the decades-old sentencing laws that critics had long considered outdated, costly and severe.

Paterson was joined by dozens of elected officials and advocates on Friday, April 24 on the roof of Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities, Inc. – one of a number of state-funded drug treatment facilities across New York that will become prison alternatives for non-violent first- and second-time drug offenders under the reformed Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“We recognize that for those who are addicted, it’s an illness, it’s a disease,” but drug addiction was not treated as such in New York under the 35-year-old laws, Paterson said. He added that the concept behind the laws – which were enacted by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 – initially “may have seemed reasonable, but it just did not work.”

In agreeing to reform the laws in March, Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver aimed to restore judicial discretion to the sentencing process, striking a balance between punishment for violent and repeat drug convicts and “kingpins” and rehabilitation alternatives for lower level offenders. The State Senate approved the drug law overhaul on April 2, nearly a month after the Assembly voted in favor of it, and the changes were officially enacted as part of the state’s 2009-2010 budget.

The reforms will give judges the discretion, regardless of any prosecutorial objections, to place addicted first- and second-time drug offenders into judicially-approved alcohol and substance abuse treatment programs. They eliminate costly mandatory state prison sentences for first-time class B felony drug offenders and second-time non-violent class C, D and E drug offenders, making them eligible for probation with drug treatment or local jail time.

In a statement released after the signing of the reforms, Karen Carpenter-Palumbo, the Commissioner of the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, said her agency “is proud to partner with Governor Paterson and the Legislature on insuring that appropriate treatment is available to those individuals that can be diverted from State prison…”

Eric Marsh, an active participant in the “Drop the Rock” campaign to repeal the drug laws, said at Elmcor that he would have landed in treatment instead of behind bars had the reforms been enacted in 1990.

Back then, when Marsh was arrested at the age of 35 for aiding and/or abetting in the sale of around two ounces of cocaine, it was, he said, “the first time I was ever in handcuffs.” Drugs were Marsh’s way of “medicating a depression” as his brother succumbed to AIDS, he said, adding that he needed help, not prison.

Despite the fact that Marsh merely admitted having knowledge of the drug deal and said he was not at all involved, he ended up serving “11 years, two months and three days” of a sentence of 15 years to life.

But now Marsh is Assistant Clinical Director of a Jamaica drug treatment center where he provides the support he could have used 20 years ago.

Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubrey, Chair of the Assembly’s Correction Committee and a pivotal force in passing the reforms, believes that the evolution of people like Marsh – from drug abuser to community leader – is emblematic of the importance of the drug law reforms.

“We never gave up on the ability of human beings to change,” Aubrey said of the decades of work by legislators and advocates that culminated in Paterson enacting the reforms. “Rockefeller defied reality and we have defied Rockefeller.”

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