Getting rid of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws will save New York state oodles of money, but that’s just one of many good reasons for doing so.
The laws, passed in response to a heroin epidemic in the early 1970s, have treated all drug dealers the same, and too harshly — throwing them in prison for lengthy terms. Some of the criminals have deserved it, having committed violent crimes in addition to selling large quantities of drugs, but others were simply addicts or recreational users selling relatively small quantities of drugs to raise cash for their next fix.
The agreement between the governor and legislative leaders would give judges discretion when it comes to sentencing all but the most serious drug offenders; instead of prison, they could order treatment for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Treatment makes far more sense than prison not only because it’s cheaper ($14,000 to $30,000, depending on whether the treatment is residential or outpatient, vs. $45,000-$50,000 per year for incarceration), but because it reduces the likelihood of repeat drug-related offenses by roughly one-third.
There is also evidence to suggest that the Rocky Drug Laws have been inconsistently enforced: Blacks and Latinos account for an overwhelming majority of those in prison for violations, suggesting that they take and sell more drugs than whites; yet studies have shown that whites account for 70-plus percent of illegal drug use.
The state spends $600 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders. Getting the low-level, nonviolent ones into treatment programs is a far better way to rehabilitate them, and at much lower cost.