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NY Re-Examines Tough Drug Laws

Former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller decided to launch a "get tough on crime" approach to dealing with that state's drug users and dealers. In 1973 Rockefeller had the state legislature pass a "lock `em up and throw away the key" approach to drug crimes. Twenty years later, law enforcement and corrections officials, state lawmakers and anti-drug advocates say they would prefer the Rockefeller laws would die and give birth to new drug rules which better fit the times.

"The Rockefeller drug laws have lost any deterrent effect they might once have had," state Correctional Commissioner Thomas Coughlin recently testified before a state Assembly committee looking at the impact of the two decade-old drug policy. Coughlin said the rules need to be revamped because they do nothing but dump drug abusers into the state's overcrowded prison system.

Rockefeller's tough drug laws are forcing law enforcement agencies to "lock up the wrong people, for the wrong reasons," Coughlin said. They also force the state's judges to mete out the same punishments to drug abusers as to violent offenders such a rapists, he added. "The identical treatment of those two offenses, which have such a disproportionate impact on their victims, borders on the ridiculous," Coughlin testified. "It tells you that our legal sense of priorities is totally out of whack."

About 45 percent of New York's 64,000 prisoners are drug offenders. The argument being put forward is that the state should use its resources to treat drug addicts, rather than imprison them. It should eliminate mandatory sentences and give judges the discretion over prison, probation or drug treatment. And it should recognize the difference between a dealer and an addict.

The federal system is currently in the process of making the same mistake New York is finally waking up from. After destroying countless lives they too will eventually discover that treatment and jobs are workable, cheaper, easier to do, and far more effective than mere punishment. What they will not do, however, is examine the social causes or roots of drug addiction. That would of course require an examination of the nature of capitalism, and perhaps even discussion of a possible alternative. While the system is willing to cycle back and forth between the ineffective liberal (treatment) and conservative (punishment) approaches to addiction, there is no way it will address the individual alienation giving rise to so many of the criminal justice problems society is experiencing today.

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