New York State's Top Judge Calls for Rethinking of Rockefeller Drug Laws 2/12/99

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Judith Kaye, New York State's chief judge, proposed several changes this week to that state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which are among the toughest in the country. Enacted in 1973, the laws were among the first mandatory minimum sentences ever enacted, requiring, among other things, a fifteen year minimum for distribution of more than two ounces or possession of more than four ounces of cocaine or heroin.

Kaye's proposal would allow appeals court judges to take into account the nature of the offense and of the offender in reassessing sentences handed down under the current scheme. The proposal would give the court of appeals the option of reducing a sentence to a five-year minimum.

"We do not presume to take on the larger policy issues," said Kaye. "But we do seek to address aspects of the law that can work unjustly, and to supplement the law with some of the lessons we in the courts have learned over the past decade on effective responses to drug based crime."

Robert Gangi, Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York, told The Week Online that while it was important for Judge Kaye to take a stand on the Rockefeller drug laws, her proposals left something to be desired.

"We who have been studying and chronicling the destructive impact of these laws are certainly pleased that Judge Kaye, a public official of great standing and a politically unassailable voice in the state, has called attention to the problems that the Rockefeller laws have caused. Unfortunately, her proposals were fairly weak in that they do not seek to rectify the primary problem with the laws, the fact that the sentencing judge has no discretion in these cases. It is well-known that in New York State, the political force behind the status quo are the upstate Republicans. From here, it looks as if Judge Kaye took politics into account in tempering her criticism.

"Judge Kaye, who ought to be speaking in the interests of her constituency -- the judges of New York State -- doesn't address the fact that the sentencing judge is not permitted to decide the threshold question: whether or not to incarcerate a particular defendant. Her proposal for the most serious felonies, in which 4 ounces are possessed of 2 ounces are distributed, is to leave it to the appellate court to decide if an injustice was done, and then to limit the court of appeals in their remedy. As for lower level felonies, she proposes that the sentencing judge have the right to divert an offender to treatment, but only with the blessing of the prosecutor. The problem here is that the prosecutor is still making the determination on sentencing, and this proposal codifies that system, which is an improper role for the D.A., and one that has led to numerous injustices in this state. Given the level of dissatisfaction with these laws among New York's judges, I'm quite surprised that Judge Kaye did not take a more forceful stand on these issues."

See our coverage of the Correctional Association of New York and Justice Policy Institute's recent report -- online at -- on the correlation between prison spending increases and educational spending decreases in that state.

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Issue #78, 2/12/99 Announcements | As Certification Debate Nears, Mexico Declares "Total War" on Drugs | White House Releases Drug Strategy Amid Criticism from Reformers | New York State's Top Judge Calls for Rethinking of Rockefeller Drug Laws | County Requests Federal Okay to Conduct Medical Marijuana Study | Impact of the Closure of a Needle Exchange Program | Editorial: Young Entrepreneurs and the Culture of Prohibition
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