The New York Times reported Thursday that a tentative agreement, on principle, to reform New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws had been reached by Gov. David Paterson (D) and the state legislature. The state Senate has already passed its version of Rockefeller law reform; what remains to be done is to reach agreement with Paterson and Senate leaders, as well as wooing back Senate members if the final bill diverges too far from what they passed.
But it isn't a done deal yet, and reform leaders qualify their attitude as "cautiously optimistic" and holding firm for real reform. The devil is the details, they noted.
"This agreement is a good sign that progress is being made to enact real reform, but it is not final, and meaningful reform will be determined by the details," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The final deal must include the core components of meaningful reform: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases including 2nd time offenses, sentencing reform, expansion of community drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and retroactive sentencing relief for those serving unjust, long sentences for low-level offenses."
Under the tentative agreement, judges would have considerable discretion in sentencing restored. They would be able to divert first-time nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison for all but the most serious drug offenses. Judges are currently bound by mandatory minimum sentences in the Rockefeller laws to send to prison people convicted of possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Judges would also have the ability to send some repeat offenders to treatment, but only if they were found to be drug dependent.
The agreement does not represent repeal of the laws, but rather reform, and comes on the heels of a spirited protest outside of Gov. Paterson's New York City office yesterday where more than two hundred people, including Russell Simmons and Reverend Calvin Butts, called on the governor to keep his word and reform the laws. Another demonstration to pressure the politicians was set for today.
"I stood with the governor in 2002 when he was arrested protesting these laws, so I know he believes in meaningful reform," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. "The deal has to be done, and done right. New York's experiment with this criminal justice approach has failed. It's time for the governor and Legislative leaders to take the first step toward a public health and safety approach to drugs."
Not everybody is happy about the presumptive deal. State district attorneys have fought hard to retain effective control over sentencing. Under current law with its mandatory minimums, prosecutors' charging decisions rather than judges' discretion effectively set sentences, and they want to keep that power. On the other side of the equation, some veteran reform activists are denouncing anything short of full repeal as a sell-out.