The Rockefeller Drug Laws: New Opportunities for Investment with a National Impact

Friday, April 2, 2010

On January 26th, Philanthropy New York hosted a members briefing sponsored by the Daphne Foundation, the New York Foundation, and the Open Society Institute, with our Increasing Diversity in Philanthropy and Philanthropy Connects special committees, which highlighted and explored new opportunities for institutional transformation and policy reform following last year’s overhaul of New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. We are pleased to have the program’s moderator, Gabriel Sayegh, Director of the State Organizing and Policy Project of the Drug Policy Alliance, share his thoughts with Smart Assets.

In April 2009, New York finally overhauled its draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDLs), the result of a decades-long advocacy campaign to which hundreds of local, state, and national organizations contributed. It is one the most significant U.S. social justice victories in recent years and one of the largest criminal justice reforms in decades.

Enacted in 1973, the RDLs marked a shift towards a criminal justice approach to drug policy, and in the years following became the model for the nation’s War on Drugs at the state and federal level. The RDLs required long, mandatory minimum prison sentences for even first-time, nonviolent drug offenses, driving an unprecedented explosion of the state prison population. In 1973, New York’s 32 prisons held 13,000 people; nearly 1,500 people were incarcerated for drug offenses. By 2000, the state prison population had ballooned to nearly 70,000 people; more than 20,000 were incarcerated under the RDLs. New York built 38 new prisons in rural upstate areas to warehouse all the new prisoners, while funding for community and other health-based services to address drug use and dependency was sharply cut or eliminated altogether.

Over the years, study after study concluded that the RDLs failed to reduce drug use or sales in New York, wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, disrupted communities through mass incarceration, and institutionalized racial inequities. More than 90 percent of people incarcerated under the laws are Black and Latino, even though whites use and sell drugs at equal or even higher rates.

The 2009 RDL reforms include: eliminating mandatory prison terms and restoring judicial discretion in most (but not all) drug cases; reducing sentences; expanding drug treatment, social services, and alternatives to incarceration; and allowing for the resentencing of nearly 1,2000 people currently incarcerated for low-level drug offenses.

But the reforms are not just about treatment instead of incarceration and better use of alternatives like drug courts and probation. They signal a historic paradigm shift: policymakers, researchers, community members, and advocates alike are calling for a public health approach to drug policy, rejecting the criminal justice approach represented by the failed RDLs.

What is a public health approach to drug policy? It’s a comprehensive effort that balances public health and public safety, taking into account the larger environmental, community, family, and economic contexts. The goal is to reduce the death, disease, crime, and suffering caused by both drug use and the unintended consequences of punitive drug policies.

Here are just a few ways that funders can help support the development of a public health approach to drug policy and ensure that the RDL reforms have a direct impact across New York and the country:

  • Create opportunities to foster collaboration among unconventional partners. A key challenge to creating a public health approach to drug policy is that funders, service providers, policymakers, public safety personnel, and community advocates do not all have a shared understanding of substance misuse and dependence as a public health problem. Historically, New York’s drug policies have been bifurcated—with one pole focused on a criminal justice response and another focused on the treatment of people already addicted to drugs, with little or no conversation between the two. One result, for example, is that state public health dollars fund peer-to-peer street education for hard-to-reach drug users, but state criminal justice dollars fund the arrest and prosecution of those very same people. We need to bring all stakeholders from various perspectives to the table and come to a common understanding in order to develop more effective solutions.
  • Invest in data collection and analysis. Across the state, communities with the highest rates of asthma, diabetes, cancer, poor health, and poverty are often the very same communities with the highest rates of incarceration. Strategic grantmaking for research in this area will provide critical information to inform new ideas, helping policymakers and advocates identify services gaps and needs, change practices which are duplicative or cross-purpose, and create new collaborative models.
  • Fund advocacy efforts to ensure effective implementation of RDL reform, including independent monitoring. Successful implementation of the RDL reforms can immediately help thousands of individuals directly affected by drugs and incarceration, and will send a powerful message to policymakers here and across the country that a new paradigm for drug policy can work. Proper implementation also opens up unprecedented opportunities for structural changes across New York’s criminal justice, health, treatment, education, and human service systems. Vibrant advocacy efforts with a statewide focus will be essential to fully realize the effectiveness and potential of RDL reform.

Moving New York towards a drug policy grounded in public health approaches will not happen overnight, but in the wake of the RDL reforms we have an unprecedented opportunity to take a major leap forward. It’s essential that we do so, as so many lives—and scarce tax dollars—are at stake. Grantmakers can and should play a pivotal role in this effort.

Gabriel Sayegh directs the State Organizing and Policy Project of the Drug Policy Alliance. The Project brings together community organizing groups, human service agencies, and researchers to advance drug policies which are guided by science, compassion, health, and human rights. The Project’s focus areas include Alabama, Connecticut, and New York; recent successes include reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York. Mr. Sayegh joined DPA in 2003 and has directed the Project since 2005. Prior to joining DPA, Mr. Sayegh was session staff in the Washington State Senate and worked as a researcher focused on global trade agreements, domestic welfare reform, and the U.S. prison system. A graduate of The Evergreen State College, Mr. Sayegh currently lives in Brooklyn.

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