New York Drug Sentences
Contravene International Law

Human Rights Watch, May 1997


State laws in New York mandate such lengthy prison terms for lesser drug offences that minor non-violent drug offenders are subject to the same sentences given to some murderers and rapists.

In its first-ever report on the human rights impact of drug sentences for low-level offenders anywhere in the United States, Cruel and Usual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders , HRW argues that New York's drug sentences violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment and Punishment. International human rights principles require a measure of proportionality between an individual's crime and the punishment imposed.

Severe sentences, therefore, should be reserved for serious criminals, those who are directly responsible for great harm, not minor drug offenders; HRW charges that the harsh sentences impose a great deal of human suffering without any appreciable effect on drug trafficking. The impact of the grossly disproportionate sentencing is felt primarily in communities of color, as almost 95 percent of the ten thousand people a year who go to prison in New York state on drug charges are black or Hispanic.

The most egregious effects of the drug laws are the classification of possession or sale of relatively small amounts of controlled substances as felonies of equal gravity as murder and rape, and drug laws that do not permit judges to exercise their traditional function of ensuring just sentences or imposing effective, safe and fair alternative or intermediate sanctions.

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