BY GRETCHEN COTHRON — The United States’ attack on the trade of illicit drugs has had dire consequences on the national budget, including funds that could be used to enhance national security to protect from terrorist attacks.
By calling the attack on drugs a “Drug War”, the government has connoted that the law enforcement crackdown on illicit drugs is much more than a law enforcement initiative. The term “Drug War” connotes that the government is fighting a war with opposing countries’ governments and militaries. However, this so-called war is being fought against American citizens and having dire consequences on the American public as a whole. In this post, the New York Rockefeller mandatory minimum sentencing laws will be used as an example of the drug crime funding.
In 1973, then New York Governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller proposed a set of extreme laws to combat the rising problem of drug related crimes by imposing “severe, mandatory penalties on all levels of drug-offenders.”[i] These laws would become the model for other states, as well as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
The Rockefeller laws were enacted to combat the crime epidemic of the 1960s and 1970s that was believed to be drug related.[ii] Prior to the Rockefeller Laws, severe prison sentences for drug crimes were reserved for only the highest-level offenders, such as traffickers.[iii] Low, street-level offenders were most often provided treatment instead of prison sentences.[iv] The Rockefeller Laws changed sentencing and created mandatory minimum sentences for all felony drug offenses. The laws removed judicial discretion in sentencing for drug offenses.[v] As a result of the Rockefeller Laws, drug related felonies became the “single most significant factor underlying the remarkable growth of the prison population in New York.”[vi]
In New York in 1980, there were 27,407 drug related arrests; less than 900 of the arrests were felony offenses.[vii] In 1999, the number of arrests increased to 145,694—a 439% increase—and, the number of felony drug-related arrests increased by 1000% to nearly 9,000, encompassing 46% of all people incarcerated.[viii] The prison population in New York for drug offenses rose from 9% of inmates in the 1980s to 34% of all inmates in the 1990s.[ix]
It was believed that by creating harsh across-the-board sentences for all drug-crime participants, the sentencing scheme would deter persons from entering the drug trade, even at low-level positions.[x] The laws were also intended to incentivize low-level offenders to snitch or provide information against higher-level offenders in order to reduce their impending sentence(s).[xi] However, there is little to no empirical data that asserts that low-level offender information has led to the arrest of drug ‘kingpins’ or ‘lords’.[xii]
Unfortunately for Gov. Rockefeller, the laws did not work as he had hoped. The Rockefeller Laws had a de minimus effect on recidivism. Under the Second Felony Offender portion of the drug laws, the percentage of prior felony offenders arrested after the implementation of the laws dropped from 79.8% to 79.5%.[xiii] As a result of the increase in prison sentences and the length of the prison sentences, in 2000, New York State spent approximately $650 million dollars housing drug-related felons.[xiv] The problems with the Rockefeller Laws led Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin to assert ““8 to 25 year sentencing range [is the same] for a person who commits a forcible rape as for a person who sells a dollar’s worth of cocaine” [and, if they knew,] the public would agree that these laws are “totally out of whack.””[xv]
The funding spent to locate, prosecute, and house drug offenders could be transferred to other, more serious crimes up to and including suspected terrorism.
President Barak Obama proposed a defense budget of $663.8 billion for the fiscal year of 2010.[xvi] For the same year, the Drug Enforcement Agency requested a budget of $2.3 billion dollars, along with 9,577 positions, and 9,420 “full-time equivalent” positions.[xvii] If every state spent an equivalent of New York’s $650 million dollars (in 2000) just housing drug-related felons, this would equal $33.8 billion dollars.[xviii] This amount does not include the monies spent to locate or prosecute drug crimes.
This blog post does not intend to advocate for drug-crime abolishment or legalization. It is intended to provoke thought and discourse.
[i] Annual Message from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to the Legislature of the State of New York (Jan. 3, 1973), in 1973 N.Y. Laws 2309, 2317. See Joint Comm. on N.Y. Drug Law Evaluation, Nat’l Inst. of Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice, Final Report: The Nation’s Toughest Drug Law, Evaluating the New York Experience 3 (1978) [hereinafter Joint Committee Report].
[ii] Annual Message from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to the Legislature of the State of New York (Jan. 3, 1973), in 1973 N.Y. Laws 2309, 2317.
[iii] Intersection of Injustice: Experiences of African American Women in Crime and Sentencing, 4 Am. U. J. Gender & L. 1, 39-40 (1995).
[v] Rockefeller Drug Laws–20 Years Later: Hearing Before the Assem. Comm. on Codes, 1993 Leg., 216th Sess. (N.Y. 1993) [hereinafter Coughlin] (testimony of Thomas A. Coughlin III, State Corrections Commissioner), available at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/misc/coughlin.htm (last visited Mar. 11, 2002).
[vi] Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Violations in the United States: Cruel and Unusual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders 6-7 (1997) at 2, [hereinafter Human Rights Watch].
[vii] See N.Y. State Comm’n on Drugs and the Courts, Confronting the Cycle of Addiction and Recidivism: A Report to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye 10 (2000) [hereinafter Report to Judge Kaye].
[viii] See Id. at 1, 10; John R. Dunne, Change the Drug Laws, N.Y. L.J., Apr. 8, 1999, at 2.
[ix] Human Rights Watch, supra note 6, at 12.
[x] Id. at 1.
[xi] Christopher S. Wren, Critics Say Rockefeller Drug Laws Pack the Prisons, Force Plea Deals and Hit Small-Timers the Hardest, N.Y. Times, Jan. 19, 1998, at B1. However, the disparity between mandatory sentences and plea bargains is often substantial enough that an individual will plead guilty, thereby giving up his or her right to trial, in order to ensure that he or she will not be incarcerated for a great length of time. See also supra note 6 Human Rights Watch at 24.
[xii] Conversely, the stable price of heroin, the increase in consumption, the stable number of narcotic deaths, and the increase in admissions into drug treatment programs have the combined impact of proving that heroin supplies were as readily available a couple of years after the enactment of the drug laws as they were in 1973. See supra note 1 Joint Committee Report at 7.
[xiii] Joint Committee Report, supra note 1, at 67.
[xiv] N.Y. State Comm’n on Drugs and the Courts, Confronting the Cycle of Addiction and Recidivism: A Report to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye 10 (2000) at 12, [hereinafter Report to Judge Kaye]. The costs of housing a drug felon in New York City have increased to a substantial $47,000 annually. This means that because most of the state’s nonviolent offenders are imprisoned there, New York City spends a significantly greater amount of money on housing drug felons than most other counties. See Id. at 26-27.
[xv] Rockefeller Drug Laws–20 Years Later: Hearing Before the Assem. Comm. on Codes, 1993 Leg., 216th Sess. (N.Y. 1993) [hereinafter Coughlin] (testimony of Thomas A. Coughlin III, State Corrections Commissioner), available at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/misc/coughlin.htm (last visited Mar. 11, 2002).
[xviii] $650 million x 52 (states) = $33 billion $800 million.