Rockefeller, New York’s Republican governor, had backed drug rehabilitation, job training and housing. He saw drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one.
But the political mood was hardening. President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs, and movies like The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park helped spread the sense that America’s cities were unraveling.
Late in 1972, one of Rockefeller’s closest aides, Joseph Persico, was in a meeting with the governor. He says Rockefeller suddenly did a dramatic about-face.
“Finally he turned and said, ‘For drug pushing, life sentence, no parole, no probation,” says Persico.
That was the moment when one of the seeds of the modern prison system was planted.
The Rockefeller drug laws sailed through New York’s Legislature. And pretty quickly this idea of getting tough, even on petty criminals, went viral, spreading across the U.S. Other states started adopting mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws – and so did the federal government.
Journalist and historian Scott Christianson has written for decades about drug crime and America’s prison system. He says we’re just coming to terms with the impact of these policies – on poor neighborhoods, on race relations and on taxpayers.
“I think that this state and our society really has to do some hard thinking and to reflect on the impact of this long-term war on drugs – what it has meant for our society and what it has cost,” Christianson says.
Half a million Americans are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Those inmates make up 48 percent of the inmate population in federal prisons.
“I concluded very early that this was a failure. It’s filling up the prisons, first-time offenders,” Persico says. “This was obviously unjust – and not just unjust, it was unwise; it was ineffective.”
This debate is far from over. Supporters of mandatory minimums say the policy has helped reduce crime in some cities, including New York, and they point to modest declines in the use of some drugs, particularly cocaine. Persico says Rockefeller himself never expressed any second thoughts or reservations about the policy that carries his name.
And now, Attorney General Sessions Orders Tougher Drug Crime Prosecutions.