In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York legislators faced a drug problem they feared was growing out of control. Federal statistics showed as many as 559,000 users nationwide and state police saw a 31 percent increase in drug arrests by 1972. In response Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal-leaning Republican who was said to have had presidential aspirations, created the Narcotic Addiction and Control Commission in 1967, aimed at helping addicts get clean. After the program proved too costly and ineffective, New York launched the Methadone Maintenance Program, which similarly caused little reduction in drug use. But by 1973, calls for stricter penalties had grown too loud to ignore, prompting Albany to enact legislation that created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder. The statutes became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws a milestone in America's war on drugs and the subject of one of the most abrasive legal tug-of-wars in the nation. The laws almost immediately led to an increase in drug convictions, but no measurable decrease in overall crime. Meanwhile, critics argued that they criminalized what was primarily a public health problem, incarcerated nonviolent felons who were better off in treatment, caused a jump in recidivism rates, and prevented judges from using discretion in sentencing. In January, during his State of the State address, New York Gov. David Paterson told his audience: "I can't think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws."
The effect of the new sentencing guidelines has been dramatic. Drug offenders as a percentage of New York's prison population surged from 11% in 1973 to a peak of 35% in 1994, according to the state's Corrections Department. The surge was mostly a result of convictions for "nonviolent, low-level drug possession and drug sales" Paterson told TIME, "people who were addicted and were selling to try to maintain their habits." According to Paterson, just 16% had a history of violence. "And so really," he says, "you're shipping off a generation." In 1979, the laws were amended, reducing penalties for marijuana posession. But despite the ongoing criticism in New York, other states began to enact laws to deal with their own drug problems. In 1978, for example, Michigan passed its infamous "650-lifer" law which required judges to incarcerate drug offenders convicted of delivering more than 650 grams of narcotics. Also, in 1987, Minnesota passed laws that imprisoned offenders for at least four years for crack cocaine possession. (Read "Mandatory Sentencing: Stalled Reform".)
By the mid-1980s, the war on drugs was in full swing, as the crack epidemic threatened to overwhelm American cities' criminal justice systems. Drug crimes had become increasingly violent, prompting calls for even stricter mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 1986, the Reagan Administration passed a law requiring federal judges to give fixed sentences to drug offenders based on variables including the amount seized and the presence of firearms.
But activists began to increasingly complain that the laws were too harsh and that non-violent offenders were being lumped in with narcotics kingpins and unfairly left at the mercy of the penal system. Celebrities including hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon lobbied for the cause. In 2004, prompted by increasing pressure from activists and legislators, then-Gov. George Pataki signed the Drug Law Reform Act, a move that significantly changed the Rockefeller laws' sentencing guidelines. The harshest mandatory minimum was relaxed to 8 to 20 years and those convicted of serious offenses were allowed to apply for lighter sentences. (Read "The Wire's War on the Drug War".)