March 13, 2009


Letter to Senators Urges Approval of Assembly-Sponsored Legislation

In a letter sent to state senators, New York State Bar Association President Bernice K. Leber (Arent Fox LLP) urged them to support Rockefeller Drug Law reform legislation that recently passed in the State Assembly.  A key provision would return discretion to judges, allowing them to tailor criminal penalties to the specifics of each individual drug case, including diverting non-violent addicts to drug treatment.

"For many years, there has been a general recognition that the Rockefeller Drug Laws must be reformed," wrote Leber.  "Three and a half decades of experience has shown that the laws have failed to achieve their goal of deterring drug use, and New York's prisons have been filled with low-level, non-violent offenders and addicts who have received unduly harsh prison terms with little or no opportunity for rehabilitation.  This approach has wasted money and wasted lives."

According to the state Department of Correctional Services, there are more than 13,000 people in prison on drug-related offenses.  The cost for the state to imprison all individuals convicted of drug offenses is estimated to be $500 million per year.  Leber noted that in this difficult fiscal environment, reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws would remove a heavy burden now being placed on public resources.

"Addiction treatment programs and alternatives to incarceration can cost less than $15,000 per person. Such programs have a better track record of success in improving the health of the addict, reducing recidivism - and depending on the program-may bring ancillary benefits such as keeping those individuals in jobs and keeping families together. All of this benefits the addicted person, the entire legal system and society," she explained. "True reform, including procedures to allow resentencing of non-violent offenders currently in prison, would result in a more effective criminal justice system and would save New York taxpayers millions of dollars."

Leber made clear that any agreed-upon legislation should include the following elements:

• Trial judges should be allowed to deviate from mandatory sentencing provisions and to divert non-violent addicted defendants to drug treatment programs instead of prison;

• Current and future prisoners should have the right to seek judicial review and reconsideration of their sentences;

• Current drug weight thresholds should be increased, consistent with the adjustments made in 2004;

• Strong penalties for drug kingpins should be the focus of criminal prosecutions; and

• Diversion of offenders to treatment, rather than prison, should be the basis of public policy. Therefore, significant funding should be appropriated for treatment.

To view the letter sent to the senators by President Leber, please visit

The 78,000 member New York State Bar Association is the official statewide organization of lawyers in New York and the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation.  Founded in 1876, State Bar programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years.