A New York drug law that changed America

This morning, we’re taking the first steps of a year-long journey into one of the strangest chapters in the history of New York and, by extension, the history of America.

Forty years ago this month, a liberal Republican Governor named Nelson Rockefeller unveiled a radical new idea for cleaning up what he viewed as the country’s drug-infested streets.

Standing at a podium in Albany in January 1973, Rockefeller demanded that “pushers get life” in prison.

A politician who had long supported treatment and rehabilitation programs pronounced that those efforts had failed, giving way to a “tragic scourge which has now spread to our entire nation.”

Rockefeller swerved dramatically, helping to launch the country’s war on drugs.  “How do you stop pushing, what deterrent is there?” Rockefeller said, calling for mandatory minimum prison sentences that stretched from 15 years to life, even for possession of small amounts of heroin and cocaine.

“We’ve got to go to the source and say ‘Let’s stop the pushing.’”

Rockefeller put his state on a complex and sometimes painful path that sent inmate populations soaring from roughly 13,000 to more than 90,000.

George Prendes served 15 years in some of New York’s toughest prisons for cocaine possession, a sentence his prosecutor now calls “disproportionate.” Photo: Natasha Haverty

In practice, the laws fell most heavily on black and Hispanic men like George Prendes, a man with no prior criminal record who in 1977 was incarcerated for 15 years for possession of cocaine.

“I lost some very good years, and there’s a lot of things that I could have done and didn’t do,” Prendes says.

“I mean I was 23 years old when I got arrested.  I got out of prison when I was 37.  That’s a big chunk of my life.”

To house the wave of new prisons, Democrats and Republicans alike funded the construction of dozens of new prisons, reshaping New York’s economy and turning Upstate communities into prison towns.

“[Prison] jobs like this, you never replace them,” argued Tom Scozzafava, town supervisor in Moriah, where one of the state’s “shock” incarceration centers is the top employer.

“One of the reasons they chose this site for a prison was because of the economic devastation of the area.”

The “Rockefeller drug laws” also helped launch a transformation of the American justice system.

In 1972, just before his policy ideas were enacted in New York, there were roughly 330,000 people in state, Federal and local prisons nationwide.

A graph produced by the Sentencing Project that shows the increase of state and Federal inmates in American prisons. Local and county jails are not included in this chart. (Source: The Sentencing Project)

By 2010, as more states and Congress enacted “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for drugs and other crimes, that number had jumped to more than 2.2 million.

If you include Americans who are under parole or other kinds of criminal supervision, roughly 6.9 million people are now entangled in our corrections system.

Over the course of the next year, reporter Tasha Haverty and I will travel the winding and sometimes painful path that Rockefeller chose for his state.

We’ll talk with prosecutors and police, inmates and public policy experts.

We’ll explore the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on urban neighborhoods and rural prison towns.

And we’ll talk about the new wave of incarceration and prison reform movements across the US that have led to a re-examination of “tough on crime” legislation.

Most importantly, in this anniversary year, we hope to provide the factual basis for a new conversation about the 40-year legacy of the “Rock” laws.

We’ll be partnering with NPR, working closely with WNYC and other public radio stations, as well as other news organizations around the region and the country.

We also hope to hear from you — particularly from the millions of Americans who now have a living connection to the country’s criminal justice system, either as workers, inmates or families.

 

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