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Rockefeller Drug Laws - Essay Example

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Rockefeller Drug Laws

The year 1973 was marked by the Watergate scandal, an uneasy cease-fire in Vietnam, and a rising tide of the counter-culture. Fuelling the resentment of public institutions and the mistrust of the government was the proliferation of drug use by a new generation. To many conservatives, it appeared as though the liberal left had won and the seeds of permissiveness were never more apparent than they were in the drug culture in New York. Conservatives, such as Nelson Rockefeller, fought back with legislation that was aimed at this cultural group, and targeted drug use as a common denominator to identify his political and social enemies. New York State became the front lines in the War on Drugs with the passing of strict anti-drug laws that would become to be known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. According to Haberman, "Their essence was to send drug felons to prison for very long stretches, with sentences made mandatory and leniency rendered unacceptable even for first-time offenders". The right wing hawks had lost the war and resigned the White House, but they were not in a mind to lose the War on Drugs.
At the heart of the Rockefeller Laws were sentencing guidelines that placed an emphasis on retributive incarceration, and eliminated any possibility of restorative justice. The laws, in many cases, called for mandatory sentencing that could be as long as life in prison with no possibility of parole. As an example, in 1999 a middle-aged mother was sentenced to life in prison for the possession of a small quantity of cocaine, even though she was a first time offender and was working for a larger organization (Papa). This experience has been repeated thousands of times in New York where the penalty for delivering drugs is on the same level as that for second-degree murder. In addition to the lengthy sentences there are the "mandatory sentencing regulations that effectively tie the hands of presiding judges" (Irwin 6). The law has preset the sentence and judges are not able to consider extenuating circumstances such as the possibility of rehabilitation or the social situation of the defendant. The ability of a judge to gauge the sentence is a hallmark of modern justice and is one of the basic functions of the court. However, under the Rockefeller Laws, this function has been usurped by the legislators, and left the judge as little more than a figurehead.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have been criticized since their enactment, but were only recently reformed as protests grew louder. Since the passing of the laws conservatives have opposed the laws because they significantly altered the role of the judge in sentencing, and were unduly harsh. Concerned citizens argued that the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for the possession of a small amount of drugs was far out of proportion to the crime, and was comparable to the sentence guidelines for rape, manslaughter, and robbery (Rhett 6). Human rights watch groups pointed to the abuse by police, prosecutors, and courts as a reaction to clean up the streets and satisfy the public's thirst for a get tough on crime policy. However, these were non-violent victimless crimes, and getting the drug user off the streets only provided a marginal amount of safety for the public. Reasonable taxpayers objected to ...Show more


There is an old saying among criminals that says 'if you can't do the time, then don't do the crime'. The drug laws signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 put drug criminals on notice that he was serious about the prison time that would be incurred for using, manufacturing, or selling drugs in New York…
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Rockefeller Drug Laws essay example
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