Dismantling the Rockefeller Drug Laws: 10 Years Later 

Sharing Stories, Lessons, and Insights from the Reform Movement


Today April 2, 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary of New York State rolling back its draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. As we reflect on this critical milestone in the fight to end mass incarceration and the drug war, Katal is launching a project called #RockReform10—and we invite you to join us!                            

First enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were among the first state-based policy frameworks to implement the war on drugs. The laws— named after Nelson Rockefeller, the New York State governor who proposed them— required harsh mandatory-minimum prison terms for possession or sale of illegal drugs, including sentences of 15-years-to-life for even first-time offenses. The laws were a political ploy to “get tough” in response to a perceived opioid drug crisis involving street heroin. Many states went on to copy New York’s approach of criminalization, giving President Ronald Reagan a solid foundation to relaunch a national drug war.

More than 200,000 people were incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws during the 36 years they were in effect. Hundreds of thousands of families were devastated. Entire neighborhoods— predominantly communities of color— were targeted, as people were arrested, extracted, and imprisoned. The laws became synonymous with systemic racism; nearly 90 percent of the people incarcerated under the laws were Black and Latino. But despite the supposed aims of the statutes, neither public safety nor public health improved as a result.



In April 2009, after a decades-long struggle, community groups and advocates won a sentencing-reform package that was among the most extensive of its kind in the United States.

Tens of thousands of people benefited from the reform packages passed in 2009 (and from smaller reforms won in 2004 and 2005), and incarceration for drug offenses statewide has steadily dropped. A political consensus has emerged that the laws were unjust, racially biased, and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. Yet some people are still incarcerated under the old Rock laws, and the state never took up the critical work of accounting for the harms they caused.

The story about how these laws came to be is the story of the nation’s drug war and mass incarceration. And the story of why and how New York finally ended the Rockefeller Drug Laws is the story of directly impacted people organizing for change; of hundreds of street protests and lobby days; of social movements; of persistent advocates; of people telling their stories and fighting for change despite great odds; of lawmakers who were committed to change. It isn’t one story, but many stories of many people sustaining a daunting fight over decades.

What lessons might our movements today learn from the history of the fight against the Rockefeller Drug Laws? In what ways does the fight to repeal these laws affect today’s movements to end mass incarceration and the drug war in New York and nationwide? What was the impact on prison populations? Did the reform fight affect the practices of police, prosecutors, and judges— and if so, how and why? We are marking the 10-year anniversary of a major win, but what can we learn from the mistakes that movement organizations made along the way? In terms of organizing and advocacy, what worked and what didn’t? What was good about the reforms themselves, and what was missing? What remains to be done? How will we know when we have finally ended the drug war and mass incarceration? What would that look like in New York?



To mark this 10-year anniversary, we’re launching the #RockReform10 project to explore these questions with colleagues statewide and around the country, and to share the stories and experiences of those who were involved in reform movements then and now. Through articles, essays, interviews, art, video, podcasts, and more, we’ll hear the voices and stories of people most affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws, those who were involved in or touched by the campaigns to repeal the laws, and those who continue to work to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs in New York State. Together we’ll identify and share some of the lessons and insights from this history so that we can draw on them as we continue this fight.

We’re thrilled to announce that we already have an amazing lineup of contributors for #RockReform10— and Katal will publish content from them throughout the year, on our website and through social media channels.

We invite you to participate!



You can follow this project by tracking the #RockReform10 hashtag on social media and by signing up to receive our short, informative Weekly Update e-mail.

If you’d like to contribute your own reflections for the project, or have questions or just want to connect about it, please contact us at [email protected]. We may not be able to publish every contribution, but we will do our best.

By marking and reflecting on a movement victory like this, we hope to uncover and share stories, insights, and tools that will strengthen our collective organizing, so that we can more swiftly and effectively bring an end to mass incarceration and the war on drugs. We hope you’ll join us!


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