Rockefeller Drug Laws
Enacted in 1973 under New York’s then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the Rockefeller drug laws mandated extremely harsh prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although intended to target “kingpins” in the state, most people incarcerated under these laws were convicted of low-level, nonviolent, first-time offenses.
The laws marked an unprecedented shift toward addressing drug use and abuse through the criminal justice system instead of through the medical and public health systems.
These drug laws and their implementation led to astonishing racial disparities and inequities in New York state’s criminal justice system, further marginalizing communities of color. Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African-Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms.
Studies show that rates of addiction, illicit drug use and sales are approximately equal between racial groups. But while Black and Latino people make up only 33 percent of New York state’s population, they comprise nearly 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies.
This is one of the highest levels of racial disparity anywhere in the nation.