William Fine, who inspired NY’s tough Rockefeller drug laws, dies

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's tough-on-crime approach led him to sign a series of strict sentencing laws.  The policy shift grew from a dinner conversation with William Fine.  (Photo:  New York State Archives)

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s tough-on-crime approach led him to sign a series of strict sentencing laws. The policy shift grew from a dinner conversation with William Fine. (Photo: New York State Archives)

William M. Fine passed away last week at the age of 86.

He was a magazine publisher, and advised the State Department on relationships with Northern Ireland.

He also had a hand in inspiring one of the most severe pieces of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

According to Joseph Persico, an aide to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Fine met Rockefeller at a dinner party in early 1972.

From the New York Times:

Mr. Fine told Rockefeller that his son had been a drug addict and that he himself yearned to do something to fight addiction. He was already chairman of Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation program.

Rockefeller suggested that Mr. Fine visit Japan, where there was very little addiction, and report to him. Rockefeller focused on one aspect of Mr. Fine’s report: Japan’s imposition of life sentences on drug dealers.

Mr. Fine praised the Japanese for being “willing to give up the soapbox movement on human rights in order to rid the public of the evil abuses of drugs.”

Persico told PTMP about the first time he heard about the idea that grew from Rockefeller’s encounter with Fine, in a meeting with the governor in the early 1970s.

“[Rockefeller] turned and said, ‘For drug pushing – life sentence.  No parole, no probation, no plea bargaining,’” Persico recounted.

Persico said there was a long silence in the room.  Many of Rockefeller’s own advisors immediately hated the idea.

“And we all looked a little bit shocked and one of the staff said, ‘Sounds a little bit severe.’  And he said, ‘That’s because you don’t understand the problem.’  And that’s when we realized that he was serious.”

Persico says Rockefeller learned about this zero-tolerance approach while studying Japan’s war on drugs.

According to the New York Times account, Rockefeller and Fine were impatient with the apparent lack of effectiveness of drug treatment programs.

This hard-nosed approach appealed to the governor, who was receiving much mail questioning whether the civil liberties of criminals were taking precedence over the prosecution of drug dealers. Rockefeller had also expressed frustration that New York had spent more than $1 billion on drug treatment and education programs, with little apparent effect.

You can read William M. Fine’s full obituary, in The New York Times, here.  Major aspects of the Rockefeller laws have since been dismantled in New York state, though the policy ideas still shape incarceration in many states and in Federal courts.

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