Soundings

Peter Reinharz
Throw Away the Key
Summer 1999

For 26 years, New York State's Rockefeller-era drug laws have mandated 15 years to life prison sentences for drug felonies. Panicky over New York's swelling prison population of 70,000 inmates—22,000 doing time for drug crimes—reformers think the laws too severe, filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders who are first-timers or who have only previous drug felonies on their rap sheets. In many instances, reformers claim, the laws punish hapless recreational-drug users or pathetic hard-core addicts, who should be in treatment or in alternatives to incarceration rather than locked up.

A new study from New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services proves the reformers wrong twice over. First, it shows that few first-time drug offenders—or drug offenders, period—actually get sent to prison. In 1996, more than 90 percent of New York's convicted first-time drug felons wound up on probation, in treatment programs, or serving short jail terms. Moreover, in the same year, approximately 70 percent of convicted repeat drug felons eluded prison sentences through treatment programs or other options.

Second, the study shows that most of the imprisoned drug felons should be behind bars. Fully 97 percent of the first-time offenders getting prison time in 1998 weren't hippy-dippy drug users but dope dealers, as were almost all of the repeat drug felons receiving prison terms. Dealers don't sell drugs to support their habits but are habitual criminals who profit from their illegal activities.

Most of those serving time under the Rockefeller drug laws are precisely the street drug pushers who made New York's public spaces scary and helped spawn the disorder in which serious crime flourishes.

We should think twice before letting them sell poison in our streets again.
 

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