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New Year, New Approach to NY Drug Laws

December 30, 2009

NEW YORK - The New Year will see thousands of drug offenders headed to treatment instead of prison and some long-time offenders getting a new lease on life. That's because in 2009, state lawmakers decided to "just say no" to New York's Rockefeller drug laws.

Glenn Martin, vice president of development and public affairs with the Fortune Society, says starting in 2010 the new emphasis will be on treatment. He estimates about 3,000 offenders will be able to petition to avoid, or be released from, jail.

"You'll see a lot more diversion here in the city and maybe in the larger jurisdictions upstate. We're talking about thousands of people each year who we'll see diverted from the criminal justice system and into drug and alcohol treatment instead."

Opponents have indicated concerns about decreasing penalties during this economic downturn when they fear crime might increase. However, Gov. Paterson backs the change, saying he could not think of a single criminal justice strategy less successful than the Rockefeller drug laws.

Fairness was a major reason for the change, according to Martin, because 92 percent of the more than 12,000 inmates locked away for decades under the Rockefeller drug laws are people of color. In the New Year, hundreds of these inmates can petition for release, which he says is not automatically problem-free.

"Obviously, after doing that amount of time, they lack community ties and don't have employment history. So it's important to connect them to agencies like the Fortune Society that have relationships with employers and can at least get them through the door, so they can put their best foot forward."

Martin says former inmates are getting a little extra assistance with their transitions back into society. Lawmakers set aside $14 million to help them beat the odds and get back to work.

"The stimulus resources are clearly tied to employment opportunities - creating new jobs and retaining existing jobs - and for our folks, employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism."

More information is available at

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NY