Ex-Governor David Paterson's Drug Law Reforms Are Actually Sort of Almost Working

A landmark 2009 reform of New York's drug laws seems to be working as more offenders are being diverted to treatment programs rather than languishing behind bars.

A study released by the nonprofit Vera Institute also finds that there has been less of a racial disparity in sentencing since the reforms were enacted, and for those who do end up doing time, recidivism rates seem to be on the decline as well.

The legislature set out six years ago to overhaul the infamous New York State drug statutes that were signed into law in 1973 by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. The laws included harsh penalties for drug crimes and mandatory minimum sentences that ensured long prison stints for many offenders. Aside from helping dramatically drive up prison populations in New York, the Rockefeller statutes were also widely imitated elsewhere in the country. They were pretty much a crown jewel of bad policy, crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders and saddling low-level convicts with life-altering criminal records.

The Vera Institute's report, produced with the help of academics from John Jay College and Rutgers University, noted that since the reforms were instituted in 2009 (having been championed by former governor David Paterson) there has been a 35 percent increase in the rate of suspects being moved into mandated drug treatment programs. But that good news is tempered by the fact that only about 20 percent of eligible offenders actually end up in treatment. The rates varied greatly by borough, with Manhattan sending only about 10 percent of eligible defendants into the program and Bronx diverting about 29 percent.

For every 1.5 people in Brooklyn arrested in 2010 and diverted to treatment, one person went to prison. The ratio in the Bronx favors diversion even more: For every 2.1 people diverted to treatment, one person went to prison. In Manhattan, however, the balance was reversed: For every one person diverted to treatment, 5.2 people went to prison.

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Jim Parsons, vice president and research director at the Vera Institute, tells the Voice that the results of the study represent "promising early findings."

"It's certainly an improvement," Parsons says. "The number of defendants diverted to treatment...is significant but not huge. Racial disparity decreased, but black and Latino defendants are still twice as likely to go to prison."

One of the reasons behind the low diversion rate could be as simple as defendant choice. Supervised drug treatment can be invasive, according to some defense attorneys quoted in the report, and some would rather opt for a short prison term than a diversion program that could be extended if the defendant winds up making a mistake. "It isn't an overwhelmingly large number of defendants that actually want to go to the drug program," one Manhattan defense attorney was quoted as saying in the report.

Racial disparities in sentencing were also improved, according to the report. But there's still a long way to go. Prior to the reforms, black and Hispanic defendants were about three times more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison. After the reforms, that disparity was reduced, but black and Hispanic defendants are still twice as likely to do time as white defendants.

More to the point of the reforms is the effect on recidivism rates. A prime selling point for drug diversion programs has been their ability to help offenders stay out of jail down the road, and the Vera study seems to partially bear out the claim. For those who went through treatment, only 36 percent ended up rearrested within the studied period; without treatment, that number was 54 percent.

Send news tips to jcampbell@villagevoice.com
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