Rocky's Road

How the Worst Law in the State's History Came To Be

This was, as a Voice writer pointed out in 1973, at a time when "at least one New York State judge [had] established a pattern of handing out 15-year sentences to street muggers."

Despite any justifiable outrage at drug dealers getting minimal punishment, however, virtually the entire state's legal and political establishment opposed the bill. Especially when viewed from today's law-and-order consensus, Rockefeller's political achievement is astounding. Imagine: a governor was able to pass sweeping legislation against the combined weight of a formerly Republican New York City mayor, most of the state's district attorneys and judges, the city bar association, police lobbyists, and the editorial board of The New York Times. In that era--before anticrime fervor had wiped out many constitutional considerations--most prominent law enforcement officials agreed with the New York Civil Liberties Union that the legislation was "one of the most ignorant, irresponsible, and inhumane acts in the history of the state."

Robert McKay, the dean of New York University Law School and chair of the commission that investigated the Attica prison rioting, went even further, and called Rockefeller's proposal "completely counter to everything the civilized world has been working for."

Rockefeller was forced to make several compromises. He agreed, with little hesitation, to add 100 judges to the state's roster to accommodate the expected ballooning case load (it also helped get the bill passed because, as a Times reporter slyly noted, "many lawmakers aspire to judicial raiment.") The governor's staff dropped hashish from the list of hard drugs, and accepted lighter provisions for teenagers and those who turned state's evidence. Most significant, the mandatory life provision was replaced by a system of mandatory minimums.

In the end, Rockefeller was able to frame the issue in a simplistic but devastating way: was the GOP-majority legislature for drug dealers or against them?

"Drugs were a very hot topic in politics in 1972 and 1973," recalls Karen Burstein, who was a freshman state senator in 1973. "We were under a lot of pressure to 'solve' the drug problem. And remember, this was a different era--nobody looked at the stuff they were voting on the way they do now. They voted the way the governor or party told them to vote."

The vote in the assembly was 80 to 65, and in the senate a lopsided 46 to 7. Almost immediately, the laws proved to be disastrous, but Rockefeller was never accountable to New York's voters, as he was tapped to be Gerald Ford's vice president before the next gubernatorial election.

Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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