In 2009, after years of debate and political wrangling, the New York state legislature finally passed a bill revising the state’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. The laws, originally passed in 1973 under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in response to a surging heroin epidemic, set mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies and allowed judges no discretion. Opponents say the laws were not only outdated, but also ineffective (incarcerated drug addicts had high recidivism rates), costly (it cost more to imprison someone than to treat them), and, by putting away a disproportionate number of African-Americans, racist.
Now it turns out that the first high-profile beneficiaries of the reforms could be a bunch of privileged kids from Columbia University. The arrest of five students on Dec. 7—they allegedly sold $11,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, Adderall, and LSD—may be a “test case” for the new reforms, according to the Associated Press. The students’ lawyers have already suggested that some of them will seek a sentence of treatment instead of jail time.
The incongruity is not lost on Robert Perry, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which fought for repeal of the Rockefeller laws. “It’s a little ironic that this case involves white folks who are apparently privileged,” says Perry. (Three of the five students are white, one is black, and one is Hispanic.) But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to benefit from the revised law, he says. If anything, their case is a perfect example of why judges should have a broad range of sentencing options—not just prison.
Before 2009, drug felons faced mandatory minimum sentences, depending on what kind of drug and how much they possessed or were selling. Those minimums were requested by the prosecutors, and judges had no option to grant leniency—it was all or nothing. Prosecutors loved this system, since mandatory minimums forced criminals to cooperate in return for reduced sentences. Now judges—not prosecutors—decide sentences, and they can consider various factors, such as addiction, in their decision. If someone seems better suited for a drug treatment center or a rigorous job training program, a judge can choose that option instead of prison.
The Columbia students could be ideal candidates for sentences other than prison, says Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. For one thing, their very presence at Columbia shows a certain amount of achievement. Their lawyers could argue that they were young and stupid and made a terrible mistake, but that they shouldn’t be imprisoned. A combination of counseling and community service would get the message across. These students also have a strong support system to fall back on, compared with your average street dealer, which could make nonprison remedies more effective. Lawyers for the students have suggested that some of the students battled addiction, which could justify treatment instead of incarceration. One of the students, Christopher Coles, had a $70-a-day marijuana habit, according to his lawyer. “That’s very much what was intended under these reforms,” says Sayegh.
The students are lucky treatment is even an option. Had they gotten busted before October 2009, when the Rockefeller revisions went into effect, they might all have faced mandatory prison time. Under the new laws, there’s more wiggle room. That said, the Rockefeller revisions aren’t all good news for the students. The reforms eliminated the mandatory minimum for felonies involving small amounts of drugs. (Felons can still be sentenced to prison—it’s just not a requirement.) But they kept in place the penalties on high-level felonies. Four of the students are being charged with B-level felonies, which under the new laws do not carry minimum sentences. But one of the students, Harrison David, faces an A2-level felony charge, which still carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three years and a maximum of 10 years. (See the different New York criminal classifications here.)
The Columbia bust is hardly the first case to “test” the Rockefeller revisions. Hundreds of drug charges have come through New York courts since 2009. One difference: None of those guys were Ivy Leaguers. But the prestige factor is important. This case could give opponents of the Rockefeller reforms a powerful weapon, says Sayegh. If some of the Columbia students do get a break thanks to the Rockefeller revisions, opponents of the reforms will point to it as yet another example of drug dealers pleading “addiction” to escape tough sentencing. The fact that they’re children of privilege makes it all the worse. Sayegh can already hear the arguments. “Here are these major kingpin drug dealer rich kids; they were selling drugs and involved in criminal activity,” he says, imagining what opponents will say. “And they got off scot free and that’s what these reforms are supposed to do? That’s crazy.”