Drug laws have undergone some significant changes within the past few decades. In the early 1970’s, in the throes of a heroin epidemic and rising murder rates, along with President Richard Nixon declaring a war on drugs, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller campaigned to get tough on drug dealers and addicts by introducing mandatory sentences of 15 years to life. This included being found with small amounts of drugs, whether it was cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. This was a reversal from Rockefeller's previous stance of seeing drugs as a social problem, not as a criminal one.
This policy shift, known as “Rockefeller drug laws”, would affect drug convictions for decades after, across the country, and would disproportionately affect people from poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods. This new stream of prisoners, which skyrocketed from over 300,000 to 2.3 million, created a new industry of prisons. It has been reported that close to 500,000 people worked in prisons in 2010, and studies have shown that America’s prison system costs between $63 billion to $75 billion annually.
Even though New York state legislators have reformed these stringent laws in 2009 by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences as well as giving judges back their authority to send a drug offender to treatment instead of jail, there are still many inmates that are serving nonviolent drug offenses—half a million or 48 percent of the federal prison population.
With overcrowding and the high costs of running federal prisons as pressing concerns, the federal government has been trying to stem the tide of nonviolent drug offenders streaming into prisoners. In 2013, the Justice Department started an initiative called “Smart on Crime,” similar to New York State’s reforms. In 2014, the Obama administration introduced a clemency program that has commuted over 1,000 sentences.
With a new presidential administration coming into power in 2017, these reform efforts may be overhauled or slowed under a new attorney general. Additionally, although there’s been bipartisan agreement in Congress on reducing the federal prison population, there’s very little consensus on how to make this happen.
Even though drug law reform has been enacted across the country, mandatory minimum laws are still sending thousands of people into federal prisons each year. If you have been arrested on drug charges it’s important to seek help from an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.