A quarter century after New York ushered in the nation's first
mandatory drug-sentencing laws, some states are showing signs of
rolling back the mandates - a trend with far-reaching ramifications
for the American criminal-justice system.
Worried about burgeoning prison populations, New York and several
other states are beginning to look at ways of punishing nonviolent
first-time drug offenders that don't require substantial jail time.
At the same time, however, states are enacting even stricter
sentencing laws and abolishing parole for dangerous felons,
particularly violent sex offenders.
The twin moves underscore a truism of American criminal justice
the late 1990s: At a time when much of the public still wants tough
treatment of criminals, states have to deal with the implications of
those sentiments by erecting more buildings with bars and concertina
To be sure, many politicians and much of the public don't want any
retreat from mandatory minimum sentences - including for drug
offenders. They believe it is the best way to tackle America's
entrenched drug problem.
But critics counter that the laws create an inequitable system of
justice that often punishes marijuana dealers more harshly than it
does violent felons. Largely because of these laws, they say, the
prison population has tripled since 1980. They also argue it makes
the system inflexible, taking away too much discretion from judges.
"States are clearly trying to be thoughtful about sentencing and
make sure the laws passed are resource sensitive," says Donna Lyons,
director of the criminal justice program of the National Conference
of State Legislatures in Denver.
This summer, Michigan - which had some of the toughest drug laws
in the country - set up new guidelines and rolled back its mandatory-
minimum life sentence for drug dealing. Connecticut, Oklahoma,
Arizona, and almost a dozen other states have either passed
legislation or set up commissions to revamp their criminal codes -
including minimum sentences.
And in New York, the legislature is expected to at least modify
the Rockefeller drug laws this session.
"There would certainly be symbolism in the undoing of the
Rockefeller drug laws, but it's also a practical policy decision,"
says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory
Minimums, a Washington-based advocacy group made up of families of
The challenges created by the Rockefeller drug laws in New York
reflect those facing other states. Initially aimed at high-level
drug dealers, they've often ended up netting low-level dealers and
"mules" - those who carry the drugs for the dealers.
Story of Thomas Eddy
Thomas Eddy was among the first to be sentenced under the
Rockefeller drug laws. Arrested in 1979 for selling two ounces of
cocaine, he expected to get a couple of years in jail, and then
Instead, the sophomore at State University of New York,
Binghamton, a National Merit Scholar who had his future ahead of
got 15 years to life.
"Even the judge said she wouldn't have given me that sentence if
she had discretion, but she didn't," says Mr. Eddy, who was granted
clemency after 13-1/2 years.
A chief concern with mandatory sentencing is that it is often
missing its intended target: big-time drug dealers.
This has occurred as discretion has shifted from judges, who are
required to mete out certain sentences regardless of circumstances,
to prosecutors, who determine whether to bring charges that carry a
mandatory-minimum sentence, experts say. Often, the higher-level
drug dealers have more information to trade and, thus, can cut
deals with prosecutors.
"The principal problem with current mandatory minimums is that
they aren't targeted sufficiently toward the high-level dealers,"
says Jonathan Caulkins, author of a Rand Corp. study on mandatory