Julie Stewart: Justice Should Fit the Crime

Post Date: October 25, 2013

Rockefeller Drug Law

Families call for reform of New York’s state mandatory drug laws at a rally in 2004.

(Albany Times Union commentary by Julie Stewart) — New Yorkers have played a leading role in the development of our nation’s drug crime laws over the last 40 years.

New York has not always led in the right direction. In 1973, it was the first state to adopt lengthy, inflexible mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses. Many states followed the Empire State’s example over the next two decades. They soon learned that mandatory sentencing laws were good at overfilling jails and sending small-time drug offenders away for lengthy terms. Over time, they also learned that these laws were expensive, unnecessary and counterproductive.

In 2004 and 2009, New York led the way again. It became one of the first states to significantly reform its drug mandatory minimums with the goal of each offender receiving the time he deserved — no more, no less. Proving just how worthless mandatory sentences are, New Yorkers have enjoyed a drop in crime since reforming these policies.

New Yorkers have led at the federal level, too. In 1986, Congress adopted arbitrary mandatory minimum sentencing laws for federal drug offenses. Crime did not go down, as proponents promised it would. In fact, violent crime rose 24 percent over the next four years. But federal mandatory minimums sent thousands of low-level and nonviolent offenders to prison for terms as long, if not longer, than those imposed on drug kingpins and violent criminals. Read more