The End Of The Rockefeller Drug Laws: A Hip-Hop Victory

Thirty six years ago, the State of New York passed into law the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which required mandatory long prison terms, up to 15 years to life, for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs.

Today, the Rockefeller Drug Laws era is finally over and the contribution of the hip-hop community can’t be denied. Finally, an agreement by the key decision makers, from Governor David Paterson to Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been consummated to dismantle the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all.

“Ending the Rockefeller Drug Laws is a great victory for the hip-hop community,” declared Russell Simmons. “We worked hard, turned up the volume on this issue and rejuvenated and broadened the coalition, but it was hip-hop artists like Diddy, JayZ and 50 Cent that gave this movement for change the power to wake people up and to get the politicians to do the right thing.”

It began on the thirtieth anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2003, when the hip-hop community joined together with the drug policy reform activists. Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), working with the Drug Policy Alliance and Randy Credico’s Mothers of the NY Disappeared, built an unprecedented national coalition. That coalition, called Countdown To Fairness and based out of the HSAN offices, drew a level of mass awareness previously unseen, to the thousands of non-violent first time drug offenders languishing unfairly in prison. On June 4, 2003, HSAN and that coalition, brought together Andrew Cuomo, Tom Golisano and other elected officials, along with hip-hop stars Jay Z, Diddy, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, Rev Run, Damon Dash, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, the D.O.C., Capone-N-Noreaga, Fat Joe, The Beastie Boys, Fabolous and M-1 from dead prez, and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, to a rally in front of New York’s City Hall which drew over 60,000 people with the purpose of educating and mobilizing around this issue for which they were and are still passionate. Most of these artists had seen, firsthand, the devastating impact the Rockefeller Drug Laws have had on their own families and communities. In the state of New York, 94.5% of all those incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws are black and Latino. This event, which was extensively covered by the national media, made the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws a national issue. In July of 2003, in an unprecedented action on behalf of the hip-hop community, Russell Simmons, Dr. Benjamin Chavis and HSAN filed a complaint in the United States District Court Southern District of New York against the New York State Temporary Commission on Lobbying, seeking First Amendment protections guaranteeing freedom of speech and protecting their right to raise public awareness about the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In 2006, filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik made a documentary film called Lockdown USA, set on the front lines of the dramatic campaign to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In 2007, hip-hop star Jim Jones released a single and video of the same name to further draw attention to this issue. In 2008, hip-hop voters went to the polls in record numbers across the country and helped change the balance of power, so that issues like the Rockefeller Drug Laws could be readdressed.

One of the main offenses of the Rockefeller Drug Laws was taking discretion in sentencing away from the trial judges and putting the power into the hands of the District Attorneys. As a consequence, thousands of people who needed treatment were unfairly sent to prison. The New York Times reports, “The new deal would repeal many of the mandatory minimum prison sentences now in place for lower-level drug felons, giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison. The plan would also expand drug treatment programs and widen the reach of drug courts at a cost of at least $50 million…But in the long run, the changes are expected to save money because sending offenders to treatment is less expensive than spending $45,000 a year to keep them confined.”

At a long-awaited press conference in Albany this morning, Governor Paterson announced the details of the agreement, saying these changes “will forever eliminate the regime of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.” The reforms include full judicial discretion for first time non-violent drug offenders as well as many repeat non-violent, addicted offenders. The State will utilize a system of drug courts to handle drug-related cases, which will give the judges the option to send offenders to treatment rather than prison. Many of the current prisoners who are serving under the Rockefeller Drug Laws will be eligible for re-sentencing retroactively.

“Our job in the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network continues to be to raise public awareness about issues that affect the quality of life of people,” emphasized Dr. Benjamin Chavis. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws for thirty six years ruined the quality of life in too many of our homes, families and communities. We are grateful to Governor David Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for their responsiveness to the cry of the people to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”

Russell Simmons sees this as the first step to taking the campaign national. “We have achieved a great victory for the people of New York and are inspired by the courageous leadership of Governor Paterson, Senator Smith and Assemblyman Silver. However, we must now go to work around the country to end the unjust drug laws in numerous other states and on the federal level. This is about changing the direction in this country for a more just and fair judicial system.”