The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and for reformers, New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws became a potent symbol of everything that's wrong with the criminal-justice system. The laws, which were instituted in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in response to a rise in drug use, remove judicial discretion in sentencing, mandating harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. According to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, nine out of 10 convicted of drug offenses in New York are black and Latino, and 71 percent of New York City residents who are convicted come from the same seven poor neighborhoods.
The Rockefeller laws were overturned partially through the decades-long efforts of grass-roots activists, who recently formed an unusual coalition with criminal-justice experts, civil servants, and politicians. Nevertheless, the reforms stop far short of the full repeal trumpeted in headlines across the country: Mandatory minimum sentences are maintained under certain circumstances, and thousands of inmates will not be able to petition the courts for a reduced sentence. At the same time, the fall of the Rockefeller laws represents a nationwide trend in corrections away from the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach. Several states are refocusing their efforts on rehabilitation and re-entry instead of just incarceration, and last week Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia announced the creation of a commission that would look to reform the criminal-justice system in his state.