The history of New York’s drug laws

There are many individuals who face uncertainty after being arrested for a drug crime in New York. The penalties that the state has in place have consistently led to very serious consequences for those who are ultimately convicted of some of the more significant offenses.

The laws concerning drug crimes have repeatedly been the subject of much debate within New York over the past five decades. It is important that individuals understand how the laws have changed, so that they are aware of how a conviction could impact their lives in the future.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws

In the mid-1960s, Governor Nelson Rockefeller put together a program that would allow drug users to get the help they need. He believed in rehabilitating offenders rather than sending them to prison, as he felt prison did not allow offenders to address their underlying issues. These practices proved to be quite costly, and ultimately, ineffective, leading to additional discussions about the next steps that could be taken to curb the drug problem. Several other rehabilitative programs were initiated in the early 1970s, but these again failed to have the necessary effect on drug use in the state.

Governor Rockefeller was under intense pressure to initiate stronger penalties for drug crimes, not only by citizens in the state, but also from members of his political party. Rockefeller was considering running for president, but he knew that he would face accusations that he was not tough enough on crime. He had to do something to change that perception within the general public.

In 1973, Rockefeller announced plans to make New York's drug laws the very strongest in the country. Individuals would be facing mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for certain offenders, even those who possessed only four ounces of an illegal substance, which included marijuana.

The reaction to the Rockefeller laws

Many other states followed New York's lead, leading to tough sentences being imposed across the country. Soon, officials began to notice a trend nationwide. Prison populations began to increase dramatically, as the number of individuals locked up for drug crimes increased substantially.

New York legislators made some changes in 1979 to the laws, which basically decreased the amount of time that an individual could receive if convicted of a marijuana-related drug crime. Despite these changes, the number of inmates in prison for drug charges kept increasing.

Addressing mandatory minimums - the 2004 and 2009 revisions

In the early 2000s, the Rockefeller laws were viewed to be a failure. The get-tough approach to non-violent drug offenders simply meant more people in prison, which was costing the state a lot of money. In 2004, Governor George Pataki signed a new law that reduced the mandatory minimums associated with drug crimes, from 15 years down to 8 for the most serious offenses. The provisions also increased the weights in possession offenses, meaning that individuals who had received some of these lengthy sentences were able to petition for a modification to the amount of time they were serving.

While this reduced the number of offenders in state prisons, further reforms were deemed necessary. Governor David Paterson signed a bill that substantially revised the Rockefeller laws. The new law eliminated mandatory minimums for individuals convicted of first-time B felony offenders, as well as second-time convictions for C, D and E felony offenders. Second-time B felony offenders would see the possible mandatory minimum sentences reduced in their cases.

The effect of these changes meant that judges once again had discretion to decide how a particular case should be handled, including possibly even allowing an individual to participate in substance abuse diversion programs. It also allowed prosecutors more leeway when trying to pursue plea bargains with certain offenders.

While this helped some individuals, it did create problems for those facing the most serious charges. When prosecutors pursued felonies against those offenders, it was more likely that they would be obtaining a conviction under the changes to the new law. Prison time was likely for these individuals, but, they generally received shorter sentences thanks to the new sentencing laws.

The current state of the law in New York concerning drug crimes

Despite all of these changes, there are still a host of penalties that can be handed down to individuals convicted of drug crimes. Even individuals who have less than 25 grams of marijuana on their persons could be facing charges, resulting in fines if convicted. Those with more than 25 grams could receive a possibility of three months in prison. More than two ounces of the drug could bring a one-year prison sentence.

Those who sell, smuggle or traffic illegal drugs could be facing even more serious penalties. Selling even small amounts of marijuana could carry a three month sentence. Those who are charged as major traffickers could be looking at a 15 to 25 year prison sentence, depending upon their role in the crime.

Mandatory minimum sentences still exist within the state. Judges do not have discretion to depart from those sentences. This has led to some individuals facing very lengthy sentences for minor crimes due to their prior drug crimes convictions.

What you should do if you are facing drug charges

While there have been some changes made to the possible penalties that could be handed down if you are convicted, you need to understand that the state still takes these kinds of cases very seriously. If you have been arrested by police, remember that you should remain silent. Attempting to clear your name will only lead to more problems in the future, and you have to take immediate action to protect your rights.

You should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss the facts of your case. Your attorney will be able to explain the drug charges you are facing, and also provide you with additional information concerning the potential penalties that you may receive if you are convicted.

Because prosecutors are so aggressive with these cases, you need to be sure that you have someone looking out for your best interests. You will be forced to make several important decisions throughout the process, and you need to be certain that you understand what consequences may result from a conviction. This is especially crucial if you have prior criminal convictions, as the penalties can be much more severe.