March 28, 2009 in Nation/World

New York to ease terms for some drug offenses

Reversal ends era of stiff landmark laws
Michael Virtanen Associated Press
 

ALBANY, N.Y. – New York Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders have agreed to ease drug laws that were once among the harshest in the nation and led a movement more than 30 years ago toward mandatory prison terms.

The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisions pushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight a drug-related “reign of terror.” The strictest provisions were removed in 2004.

Critics have long claimed the laws were racist and draconian, crowding prisons with people who would be better served with treatment. The planned changes would eliminate mandatory minimum terms for some low-level nonviolent drug felonies, which could cut the prison population by thousands.

“In addition to being unjust, these policies are ineffective,” Paterson said Friday, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers and New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Three decades have shown the core issue is often addiction, “a treatable illness,” with far lower recidivism for those who get treatment instead of prison, the governor said.

At the same time, penalties will be toughened for drug kingpins and dealers who sell to children, Paterson said. The measure will be part of the state’s budget package, he said. Lawmakers are trying to enact it by next week.

Across the nation, some states have been pushing sentencing reform to empty prisons and cut costs amid growing budget difficulties. New York’s inmate total has already dropped by 10,000 in a decade to about 60,000, with proposals to close and consolidate prisons thwarted by lawmakers concerned about losing state jobs.

Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, described the proposed reforms as a breakthrough but said they would still leave some harsh provisions intact. He said there are about 12,000 drug offenders in state prison, and he said 35 to 45 percent would have been eligible for judicial diversion under the proposed reforms.

“The Rockefeller drug laws, for better or worse, were the granddaddy for mandatory sentencing laws,” said Gangi, whose nonprofit organization monitors prisons. “They initiated, in effect, the movement … that swept the country in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”

Other states have also been adjusting their drug laws but many still have stiff mandatory minimum drug sentences, he said.

New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau said “there seems to be an emphasis on providing funds for treatment, and that is movement in right direction. But we have to look at these changes and make sure they protect the public, too.”

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