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New york considers drug law reform

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Posted on Tue, Dec. 07, 2004
New York to Ease Prison Terms for Drugs

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. - State lawmakers voted Tuesday to scale back some mandatory sentences under New York's infamously harsh drug laws, which could send a person to prison for life for possessing just a few ounces of heroin or cocaine.

Among the reforms would be to change the current maximum sentence of 15 to 25 years to life to a sentence of eight years to 20 years, making offenders eligible for release in less than seven years. They currently have to serve the minimum of at least 15 years.

The proposal would also eliminate the maximum term of life for the most serious offenses. A common sentence of three years to life for many offenders would become a determinate sentence of three years, making offenders eligible for release in just over 2 1/2 years.

Opponents of the drug laws had decried the maximum life sentences of the statute as draconian, though only about 400 of the state prisons' 62,000 inmates are serving the maximum for offenses related only to drug possession.

Those inmates would be allowed to seek reductions in their prison time in line with the new sentencing guidelines. Under the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, defendants could face up to life in prison for possession of just four ounces of cocaine or heroin.

The agreement would also make nonviolent drug offenders eligible sooner for treatment programs and double the amounts, by weight, of heroin and other controlled substances that defendants have to be caught with to qualify for the harshest of charges.

The Assembly approved the measure 96-41; the Senate passed it in a 53-6 vote. Gov. George Pataki helped negotiate the measure and said Tuesday he would sign it into law.

"Now we put in a new law that will rationalize that sentencing (structure) and make the punishment fit the crime," he said.

Former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller pushed the statutes through the New York Legislature in 1973 and 1974, at a time when he felt the state's inner cities were being lost to heroin addiction and judges were balking at imposing stiff sentences on drug offenders.

Two longtime goals of drug law reformers - giving near-total sentencing discretion to judges and allowing some offenders to avoid prison entirely in favor of treatment - are not included in the agreement.

Michael Blain, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, called the measure "a step in the right direction." Robert Gangi, head of the state Correctional Association, said the legislation makes "very modest" changes in the drug-sentencing provisions.

"The laws are still mandatory," Gangi said. "The sentences called for are still unduly long, even with the reductions."

Majority Republicans in the Senate have resisted sweeping changes to the drug statutes, especially ones that would weaken the role of district attorneys in determining which drug offenders should be given treatment.

Critics of the mandatory drug laws say the sentences are unduly long for many low-level offenders and addicts, and disproportionately affect minority offenders.

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