Introduction: The passing of the Rockefeller drug laws began what is now known in American history as the “War on Drugs”. This was a response to the growing drug abuse and crime that came with it in New York. What isn’t told to the general public is that this had deeper roots than just drug abuse and if look at long enough it could be boiled down to the racist roots this country has against minorities. The law’s supporters were under the assumption that mandatory minimums and disproportionate harsh sentences would have an immediate deterrent effect on the nations drug abuse problem. These Rockefeller laws soon became a model for other states to follow, and eventually laws were enacted across the country with the Rockefeller laws as a foundation. What resulted was one of the largest failed criminal justice programs in American historyHistorical Context:The passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 would bring about a radical culture shock towhite Americans, particularly those on the lower economic spectrum.
Affirmative action, busingand desegregation “created an understandable feeling of vulnerability, fear, and anxiety among a group already struggling for survival” (Alexander, 2010). The Republican party saw theopportunity to have southern white Democrats defect by appealing to their culturally instilleddesire to “get tough on the racially defined others”. (Alexander, 2010) They also saw it as anopportunity to go after the cultural revolution going on in their colleges. A Nixon aid JohnEhrlichman who was a part of the administration stated in an interview in 1994 that they “.
..knew that we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing bothheavily we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest rest their leaders, raid theirhomes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news” (Baum,2016). The Nixon Administration through the utilization of The Commerce Clause which grantsCongress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several statesand with the Indian Tribes…
” would implement an omnibus narcotics bill that would radicallyshift power into the hands of the Justice Department. With the rise of mass media, the worstcrimes throughout the country were being brought to the dinner table night after night throughlive broadcast. This would help stir public opinion and have Americans under the guise thatdanger was right outside their doorstep. This collective paranoia was taken advantage of bymany politicians of the time who wished to be reelected. Officials such as Thomas J. Dodd whowas still taking heat for diverting campaign funds into his personal bank account. (Balko, 2013)These senators would help pass the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and control Actbringing about increasingly punitive approaches to the problem of drugs.
Mike Mansfield at thetime the highest ranking member of the senate after the vice president admitted that at one pointhe was so overwhelmed by the sheer size of the proposed legislation that he gave up on figuring out if some of the laws he was voting on were constitutional. He would “vote for them all and then let the courts figure it out”. These laws would give the Justice Department authority over the manufacture, distribution, export, import, and sale of addictive drugs as well as having full autonomy with regard to their classification authority (Balko, 2013). At the same time NewYork State governor Nelson Rockefeller implemented strict mandatory minimum sentencing fordrug possession and trafficking convictions.
All 50 states would eventually legislate the same policy. This approach remained a politically favorable one which was carried out by both political parties especially moving into the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Reagan administration would lean into this approach by associating drugs and violence with inner cities. His administration would take the rhetorical “Drug War” and turn it into a literal one in 1982. With the constant barrage of selective journalism public opinion and support for the drug war would swell as Congress would allocate millions of dollars to fund it.
(Alexander, 2010). In 1986 Reagan would enact federal mandatory minimum sentencing that greatly affected how sentencing would be determined. That determinate factor being the weight of the drug. This law would also remove parole as well as strip judges of their sentencing discretion.
This would take away the judges ability to factor the defendant’s character, the effects it would have on there defendants kin, and the circumstance of the crime. This approach towards getting tough on crime would only swell in size and become a collective bipartisan effort. Michelle Alexander points out how “almost immediately, Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on them… Clinton’s tough on crime policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history”(Alexander, 2010).Lasting impact on Criminal Justice System:The policies spawned from this war have deeply taken root within our institutions ofcriminal justice and the law. Due in large part to mandatory minimum sentencing lawsimplemented with particular racial bias, as well as an omnibus crime bill signed in the 1990’sthat included the federal three strikes provision gave vast powers to our criminal justice system.The decision to have the Department of Justice lead the charge is most visible within our prisonsystem. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics “the number of prisoners held infederal and state prisons increased from almost 430% from 294,000 on December 21,1978 to1,556,600 on December 31 2009” (Carson & Golinelli, 2013). In that same study though, it was recognized that rates of incarceration are decreasing, “roughly 99,279 people started newsentences in state prisons for drug offenses” (Carson & Golinelli, 2013).
A majority of this spike in the rate of incarceration is directly correlated to the mandatory minimum sentencing as well as Rockefeller and three strikes laws. These laws combined with the notion that the drug problem was rooted in urban environments led to “heightened surveillance practices in low income communities which has resulted in black cocaine users being overrepresented in the criminal justice system, even though black people do not use drugs at a greater rate than otherraces/ethnicities” (Lynch 2012). According to a statistic estimate by the Department of Justice41% of state prisoners for drug charges are black, and 21% are hispanic.
(Carson & Golinelli, 2013). These minimum sentencing laws decreed a 5 year sentencing for individuals with 5 grams of crack while making the same mandate for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Those who had crack were by and large impoverished people and people of color, whereas those who had cocaine were wealthier and usually white. Through these practices have we seen the impact the drug war has had on our criminal justice system.
Another impact these laws had on the Criminal Justice system was that it completely removed the Judges power of discretion. They can no longer take into consideration if the defendant is a single parent, or unemployed, or no education, and a laundry list of other factors that could affect the reasoning behind a persons motive. Instead of the judiciary deciding sentences on a case to case basis, prosecutors are now dictating the time each person committed solely based on the crime. “Prosecutors’ decisions are unreviewable and “the criminal justice system lacks mechanisms to hold prosecutors accountable for their choices. (Nadaki, 2001)The Human Cost:The Rockefeller drug laws cost the state of New York a tremendous amount of money. Approximately 11,000 people remain incarcerated for drug offenses in New York, representing nearly 20% of the prison population (at their height, more than 23,000 people were incarcerated under the laws). Nearly 66% have previously never been to prison, and 80% have never been convicted of a violent felony.
The state spends nearly $500 million per year to incarcerate people for drug offenses, approximately $45,000 per person per year (“Background on New York’s Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws”, 2012). Studies put the price tag of America’s vast prison system at between $63 billion and $75 billion a year. It is certainly not cheap to imprison people, as New York has found outBesides the financial cost, there is a human cost to the Rockefeller drug laws. In the near half century of the Drug War’s duration we are still discovering it’s total human cost. The damage done to the American family as a direct consequence of the drug war has brought about transgenerational trauma.
This is especially prevalent in minority communities. While in prison, the families of inmates suffer in numerous ways. Children are often raised in single parent households, many times lacking a male role model. Once incarcerated, these young men will have a very difficult time finding a job that allows them to provide for themselves and their family. According to most theories of crime, one of the most important institutions in a child’s upbringing is the parent. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics “data snapshot indicated that 59% of male drug offenders in state prisons and 68% of male drug offenders in federal prisons are fathers” (Glaze & Marushack, 2010). Given that over 60% of the prison population is made of of men of color it can be inferred that a majority of them are fathers. It is no better for parents who are convicted felons.
In the 2008 fragile families study it was found “that familial and housing instability resulting from parental incarceration remained statistically significant even if the parent was incarcerated before the child was born.” (CRCW 2008) This same study goes even further citing “a significant relationship between parental incarceration and child homelessness, even if the child lived apart from the father” (CRCW, 2013). Federal safety nets intended to aid those with lesser means are unavailable to felons creating a self sustaining cycle of disenfranchisement.
Michelle Alexander refers to this as a second class citizenship. She cites how “once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote and exclusion from jury services are suddenlylegal” (Alexander, 2010).Reforms:Though it can certainly be argued that it has come for many at too late a time efforts havebeen made towards reforming our drug policy.
New York along with 17 other states haveimplemented some type of reform that falls within one or all of five categories. Those categoriesbeing reforms to mandatory penalties; changes to drug sentencing schemes; early releasemechanisms; community-based sanctions; and revisions to collateral consequence laws.(Subramniain & Moreno, 2014).
In New York, the state which had introduced the Rockefeller Drug laws, in 2009 had “passed S 56-B, which revised the RDL by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many types of drug offenses. The law also reduced minimum sentence lengths for other offenses, and gave judge discretion to consider mitigating factors in sentencing situations where mandatory minimums are still at work” (New York State Senate Committee on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, 2012). Three years since its implementation the number of drug offenders in custody declined by 34% (New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, 2013). Despite these recent reforms and action taken to try and correct the mistake that was made with the Drug War, more can still be done. The “tough on crime” philosophy of law enforcement has faded from the demands of the public and they are now demanding accountability for actions taken in the name of this old philosophy. Crime is at an all time low for this state and the country as a whole, however, we have a massive backlog of inmates awaiting trial or stuck in prison for half their remaining life or more.
The Criminal Justice System has to take a look at what policies it is putting in place to change that as well as to help the inmates find jobs and employment in the world so they do not fall back into the system. To do this the government may pass a law to ban employers from discriminating against past inmates on cases that did not lead to convictions. Although hard to enforce, this will provide transparency for the government and show a institutionalized recognition of how destructive this discrimination can be.Conclusion:A large majority of the men sentenced to decades in prison under the Rockefeller drug laws are set to be released within the next few years. This will create a problem since many of these men will have nowhere to go and have little chance of finding a job. Many social services are already overburdened, and will be most likely less inclined to help someone find a job who is over 50 as opposed to someone in their 20’s. The release of so many prisoners within the same timeframe could cause a shift in the population structure of a local community, which would have far reaching social and economic consequences.
What legacy has the drug war had in the United States throughout the 46 years of its implementation? How has it influenced our criminal justice system and hurt minority communities in the country? Reflecting upon these studies it would be challenging to find positive consequences of the drug war that outweigh the negative. The question that looms after this recognition is, was any of it justified or worth it? Was this in fact a righteous cause that began with the Nixon administration into the Reagan administration and through the Clinton administration? Righteously targeting communities of color with disproportionate sentencing based on a substance being in its crystalized form as opposed to powder. Justly abolishing sentencing discretion from judges, virtuously creating second class citizenship, and ethically targeting minorities and undesirables? It would seem there are some injustices that need remedying.