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New York's new state of mind on drugs

Officials have agreed to repeal severe drug laws that wasted law enforcement resources and created an incarceration crisis. Now Congress should follow their lead.

April 02, 2009

For more than 30 years, New York's draconian drug laws have been among the toughest in the nation, requiring sentences of 15 years to life even for nonviolent first-time offenders. Worse, New York's early example was followed by states across the country, furthering a flawed strategy that was as harmful to society, in many ways, as drug use itself. The result has been wasted law enforcement resources -- as if police could arrest away drug addiction -- and a national incarceration crisis. Millions of lives were destroyed.

So we were pleased to hear that New York Gov. David Paterson and a group of legislators have agreed to repeal the state's mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, permit some addicts to go into treatment rather than face prison time, and allow inmates in some cases to seek reductions of their sentences. It represents nothing less than the demise of the Rockefeller drug laws, named after Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who pushed them through in 1973.

When they were first implemented, the laws appealed to a public panicked by escalating heroin use, particularly in cities. But three decades later, the research is conclusive: Treatment is more cost-effective than prison, and long-term programs are best for reducing recidivism.

States are finally getting the message. In 2000, California voters, facing a severe incarceration crisis, approved new laws allowing convicted offenders to be sent to treatment instead of prison. Since then, a UCLA study showed, the incarceration rate for drug possession offenses has dropped by more than 34%, and the state saves $2.50 for every dollar invested. Last year, Massachusetts became the first state to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction, the equivalent of a parking ticket.

But de-escalating the drug war state by state is inefficient; federal leadership is necessary. To that end, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has introduced a bill that would set up a commission to scrutinize the nation's penal system and make recommendations for its overhaul. Among other tasks, the commission would review drug laws and examine racial disparities in sentencing -- drug consumption is equal across the races, but blacks account for 37% of those arrested, 59% of those convicted and 74% of those incarcerated. The White House and congressional leaders from both parties have backed the bill.

Just as the Rockefeller laws led to similarly harsh measures in other states, we hope their repeal will inspire reforms across the country and give Congress the will, finally, to do the same.

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