Rockefeller drug laws
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Pataki proposes major overhaul of Rockefeller drug laws
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ALBANY — Gov. Pataki on Tuesday released his latest proposal to overhaul the Rockefeller-era drug laws that require long prison sentences for possession and sale of even small amounts of narcotics.
The proposal was immediately rejected by the Legislature’s top Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said it was “slipped under the door ... after-hours last night.”
Pataki said if his proposal becomes law, hundreds of nonviolent offenders would be released from prison and thousands of others would have their sentences reduced.
Pataki’s proposal would “overhaul the drug law sentencing structure, provide retroactive relief for nonviolent offenders in prison, and toughen penalties for violent and predatory drug dealers,” according to a statement Pataki released about his proposal. “The bill would completely replace the drug law sentencing structure, providing dramatic reductions in sentencing for all nonviolent drug offenses and allow for retroactive relief for hundreds of nonviolent drug felons.”
To try to soften opposition from prosecutors and others, the proposal would also toughen penalties for so-called drug kingpins, for dealers who use guns or sell drugs to children or by using the Internet.
“We cannot afford to lose this historic opportunity to pass a bill that would make an immediate difference to so many lives, as well as protect our neighborhoods and children from drugs and violence,” Pataki said.
Although Pataki said the proposal represents what he believed was a “consensus” with Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Silver said it was lacking in key areas. Silver said there must be a provision for diversion on nonviolent offenders to drug rehabilitation instead of prison and there must be greater discretion in sentencing by judges, instead of mandatory terms.
“While we are dismayed by this less-than-comprehensive approach, we are hopeful that we can continue discussions,” Silver said.
The proposal includes agreements worked out in an seven-hour closed-door session between Pataki, legislative leaders and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, an activist for reform of the laws.
The proposal would:
Dramaticaly reduce penalties for all nonviolent drug offenders. Class A-I nonviolent, first-time felons could receive nearly a 50 percent reduction in sentencing.
Make eligible all nonviolent felons for a significant reduction in prison time through lower sentences as well as credit for good behavior in prison.
Make virtually all nonviolent drug felons eligible for “retroactive relief.” About 90 percent of the current 550 Class A-I drug felons would be eligible for re-sentencing. Approximately 67 percent of these eligible Class A-I felons, or about 370 offenders, could be released immediately.
Make all other nonviolent drug felons who have not reached their minimum sentences eligible for an additional merit time reduction of a sixth of their minimum sentence. Approximately 10,000 offenders could be eligible.
“This bill reflects generally where the governor, Senator Bruno and the (Assembly) speaker were toward the end of session,” said John McArdle, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.
The Senate Republicans “strongly believe that increased penalties must be a provision of any bill,” McArdle said.
That is a provision that irks an advocate for prisoners.
“Our concern is that if Russell Simmons blesses this proposal ... this reform proposal will be palmed off on the public as a historic breakthrough when it is at best a cosmetic change,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York.
Gangi said the proposal isn’t meaningful because it doesn’t return sentencing authority to judges, but instead maintains some mandatory sentencing. He is also opposed to automatic increased penalties for drug crimes involving children and the Internet without a judge being able to consider factors in individual cases.
In New York City, Simmons called the bill “very fair and very balanced.”
Benjamin Chavis, a leader of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, said repealing the law would have been impossible at this time, so the activist group is pleased with Pataki’s proposal.
“If (Gov. Nelson) Rockefeller were here now, I think he would totally agree,” said singer-songwriter Carly Simon, a political activist. “This is a great, great beginning.”
A spokesman for the New York District Attorneys Association didn’t immediately comment.
Originally published on July 15, 2003