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Gov. Nelson Rockefeller: Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller: Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office

How the Rockefeller drug laws changed America

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This year, our Prison Time Media Project is spending the 40th anniversary of passage of the Rockefeller drug laws looking in-depth at how those tough-on-crime policies changed America.

The project began last January and in the months since, we've covered a lot of ground.

We've looked closely at the future of the North Country prison industry. We've asked how mass incarceration has affected women and families. We've probed the national debate over alleged abuse of solitary confinement.

As we hit the half-way mark, we thought it would be helpful to go back and revisit the first stories in the series, reports that laid the foundation for the Prison Time project.

In this piece, Brian Mann looks at the role played by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in changing the way America thinks about drugs, crime and justice.

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Join in the conversation about New York's Rockefeller drug laws and find more information and photographs at prisontime.org.

In the 1960s, New York state was known for treating drug addiction as a medical problem – not a criminal one.

One of the champions of that approach was Nelson Rockefeller, New York's popular Republican governor.

I have one goal and one objective, to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim.
"I was trying to get the addict off the street into treatment," Rockefeller said. "It was a beautiful concept."

But by the early 70s, attitudes about drugs and crime were changing fast. Heroin was turning up in more urban neighborhoods.

A sense that cities were unraveling

Films like "Panic In Needle Park" and "The French Connection" portrayed narcotics as an out-of-control epidemic.

In New York City, community leaders like the Reverend Oberia Dempsey began calling for a national crusade to stop the tide of drugs.

Films like "Panic In Needle Park" helped shape a mood of fear in American cities. Source: Wikipedia
Films like "Panic In Needle Park" helped shape a mood of fear in American cities. Source: Wikipedia
"I have seen the nation's number one state, New York, become a state of fear," Rev. Dempsey argued. "Dope pushers made this so."

In 1973, there were 1,600 homicides in New York City – four times as many as there were last year. Muggings were common and people like Dempsey were convinced that the core problem was drugs.

"I was assaulted by members of a dope mob and we know what it is like to be victimized by drug-thirsty, money-hungry death-dealing criminals."

Scott Christianson is a journalist and historian. In the early 70s, he was digging up stories about drug crime and drug-related corruption. He said there was a sense that American cities were unraveling.

"I didn't see it as being inflated at the time, a young 23 and 24 year old, churning out the stories about heroin and corruption," Christianson recalled. "I contributed to the notion that this was such a danger to America."

In 1971, President Richard Nixon launched what he called a national war on drugs.

 "As I talk to the people from New York state, we must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States – the problem of dangerous drugs," Nixon proclaimed.

Rockefeller's about-face

Rockefeller – who was widely seen as more liberal — had resisted that kind of tough-on-crime rhetoric. But political pressure was building.

Late in 1972, Joseph Persico, Rockefeller's speechwriter, was in a meeting with the governor when Rockefeller suddenly laid out a radical new idea.

"He turned and said, 'For drug pushing – life sentence. No parole, no probation, no plea bargaining.'"

 Persico said there was a long silence. 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.

He thinks Rockefeller had decided that more moderate approaches to drug treatment had failed.

"So what he did was he just lashed out, as a leader who tried all the right things and he was frustrated."

In January of 1973, Rockefeller rolled out a no-holds-barred political campaign, pushing for mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life even for those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.

"I have one goal and one objective and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim," Rockefeller declared.

The policy drew sharp criticism from drug treatment experts and some politicians, who called the sentences "draconian."

 But the idea of hitting drug dealers hard caught the mood of the country, winning support from leaders in New York's black and Hispanic communities.

 "Our young people are dying, they're being destroyed," said Glester Hines, who led an organization in Harlem called the People's Civic and Welfare Association.

 "And unless you back this bill, New York state is doomed. And not only the state of New York, but all the other states are watching to see what New York is doing."

 Polls showed that the new policy was hugely popular and five months later, Rockefeller signed it into law.

 Albert Rosenblatt was a prosecutor at the time and wrote the first book detailing how district attorneys should implement the new rules.

 "I don't remember thinking or believing, nor did my colleague DAs at the time, that this was going to somehow revolutionize and change everything," Rosenblatt recalled.

Unexpected and troubling results

But Rosenblatt, a Republican who later served as a judge on New York's highest court, says prosecutors quickly realized that the laws were producing unexpected and troubling results.

 White people were using a lot of drugs in the 1970s. But the people being arrested and sent to prison for lengthy sentences came almost entirely from poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

 "We were aware of it. I mean, it's hard not to be aware of it when you see a courtroom and a cadre of defendants – many of whom or most of whom were people of color."

There were other problems. New York's prison population soared from just over 13,000 to a peak of roughly 72,000 inmates, many of them non-violent, first-time offenders.

During those years, tough, Rockefeller-style sentencing laws were also being implemented around the US. Rosenblatt says he's no longer sure that was a good idea.

Rockefeller-style sentencing laws led to dramatic increases in inmate populations in the US.  Image: <a ref="http://www.sentencingproject.org">The Sentencing Project</a>
Rockefeller-style sentencing laws led to dramatic increases in inmate populations in the US. Image: The Sentencing Project
"Historians are going to look back 200 years from now, or 100 years from now – or maybe even now. And they're going to say the law has landed harder on the poor people and on those who are not able to defend themselves as easily."

Doubts about mandatory minimum laws have grown over the years, even among many of the conservatives who once championed them.

New York's Rockefeller laws were reformed in 2009, a move sparked in part by the soaring cost of locking up so many people. In 2010 Congress also eased mandatory sentences for crack cocaine.

But tough mandatory minimums for drug possession remain in place in many parts of the US.

Historian Scott Christianson says Americans are only beginning to grasp the impact of Rockefeller-style laws – on poor neighborhoods, on race relations, and on taxpayers.

"I think that this state and our society really has to do some hard thinking and to reflect on this long-term war on drugs. What it has meant for our society and what it has cost."

It's hard to measure what impact Rockefeller-style laws have had on actual drug use and addiction in America.

Use of some types of drugs has declined, but some studies suggest that heroin use has actually increased.

Corrections work has become a major industry in the North Country, where there are 16 state and Federal prisons. Photo: Wikipedia
Corrections work has become a major industry in the North Country, where there are 16 state and Federal prisons. Photo: Wikipedia
With nearly 7 million Americans now in prison or on some kind of supervised criminal probation, drug-related violence still plagues urban neighborhoods.

 Joseph Persico, the aide who helped to push through the Rockefeller drug laws, says he thinks the policy was a mistake.

"I concluded very early that this was a failure. This was obviously unjust – and not just unjust, it was unwise and it was ineffective."

But supporters of mandatory minimums point to dramatically lower crime rates in some cities, including New York, as evidence that long prison sentences can make communities safer.

 And Persico says Rockefeller himself never expressed any doubts or regrets about the policy that carries his name.

 "Never had any second thoughts or any doubts about the wisdom of what he had proposed.

A lot of historians think Rockefeller's push for tough drug laws may have helped to revive his national political fortunes.

 In 1974, one year after he pushed the new laws through New York's legislature, Rockefeller was chosen by President Gerald Ford to go to Washington to serve as vice president of the United States.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.

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