4 April 2004

New York Times on futility of harsh sentences for drug use, dealing.

Dear Colleagues,

This item shows just how hard it can be to reverse bad laws once enacted, despite widespread agreement amonst the various parties.

Time Eases Tough Drug Laws, but Fight Goes On.

By AL BAKER Published: April 16, 2004

ALBANY, April 15 - For years, one of the most divisive topics in New York State has been how to soften the Rockefeller-era drug laws, which sought to counter the drug scourge of the 1970's by setting long sentences even for relatively minor drug crimes.

Opponents of the laws, which were enacted at the request of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, often portray the laws' legacy as one in which many low-level offenders, tripped up by tough mandatory minimum prison sentences, have languished in prisons as victims of the antiheroin efforts of the day.

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Of the 16,564 drug offenders imprisoned as of April 3, fewer than 3 percent of them, or 481 people, were serving time for the state's most serious drug offenses, A-1 felonies; that number is down from the 724 imprisoned similarly in 1995. Furthermore, Gov. George E. Pataki has been using his clemency powers in the most compelling cases, releasing 26 of those prisoners during his administration. The governor has also pursued a strategy of releasing nonviolent felons, including drug offenders, early.

When the laws were instituted in 1973, Governor Rockefeller called them "the toughest antidrug program in the nation." They required a minimum sentence of 15 years to life for sale of one ounce of narcotics, or the possession of two ounces. They also increased the penalties for those caught with smaller amounts of drugs.

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"We have enacted some reforms over the course of the years and we have lessened the harshness of the pre-existing Rockefeller drug laws," Mr. Pataki, a Republican, said as the issue bubbled up on Wednesday. "But having said that, I still believe there is room for significant additional reform."

As Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate's Republican Majority leader, put it, the number of inmates who deserve some type of relief may have "dwindled down to a few." But, he said, "That is no justification for keeping those few there if it is unjust."