New York prosecutors have, not surprisingly, emerged as the primary foes of any changes to the Rockefeller laws, the state's draconian mandatory-minimum drug statutes. They made their message clear in a letter from the New York State District Attorneys Association, representing all 62 county prosecutors, to Gov. George Pataki, and to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Pataki introduced a 10-point program that would effectively cut the sentences of some 600 prisoners serving 15-years-to-life terms, would divert minor offenders from jail or prison to treatment programs, and would restore some sentencing discretion to judges. The package has received mixed reviews from drug reform activists and prisoners' rights groups (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/170.html#patakibill).
Despite the Pataki package's rather modest reforms, prosecutors are up in arms, especially on the issue of judicial sentencing discretion. Statutes that restrict the ability of judges to impose appropriate penalties end up concentrating control over cases in prosecutors' offices. Under mandatory minimum sentence schemes, the sentence is effectively reached when the charge is brought. Prosecutors also use their power over sentencing to force plea bargains from some offenders and force others into treatment.
"Violent crime is down dramatically in New York State and, in our view, one of the main reasons for the decline is the vigorous enforcement of our drug laws," wrote the prosecutors. "It would be extremely shortsighted to respond to these outstanding reductions in violent crime by taking away the very tools we have used so effectively to make our communities safer."
The letter's author, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, who is also president of the state prosecutors' association, added: "We can't live with a system that takes out of prosecutors' hands the right to send predatory drug dealers to prison."
The prosecutors' offensive is partly driven by the sense that, unlike years past, drug reform of some shape will actually make it into law. "My concern is that we not go too far in giving away our discretion," the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, told the New York Times. "This is the first year where I've sensed something is going to happen."
That's because for the first time, the governor and both parties' legislative leaders are pushing for reform. The district attorneys have been careful to not directly oppose any of Pataki's proposals, but seem to be positioning themselves to act as a counterweight to Democratic Assembly Speaker Silver. Silver has criticized Gov. Pataki's plan as not going far enough, but has not yet introduced his own proposals. Silver has invited the prosecutors' group to meet with him, and "aides" told the New York Times they expected a tough battle over what to do with low-level drug offenders and whether judges or prosecutors will decide who goes to jail and for how long.
The District Attorneys Association is also sending a group to meet with Gov. Pataki and has lined up a meeting with members of the Republican-controlled Senate. Other New York law enforcement associations -- the state prison guards' union, the police chiefs' association, the sheriffs' group -- have so far remained quiet in comparison with the district attorneys.
Prosecutors are coming up against an increasingly formidable coalition of groups demanding softening of the laws, from Catholic bishops and human rights organizations to African American and Latino elected officials. Judges, too, would like to see sentencing powers returned to the bench. Chief Justice Judith Kaye has expressed "cautious support for softening the mandatory sentences," the Times reported.
The prospect has some district attorneys making strange arguments. Queens DA Richard Brown, formerly a state judge for 16 years, attempted to explain why judges couldn't be trusted to make sentencing decisions: "They have enormous calendars, they have cases to try," Brown told the Times. "The pressure they are under is to try to get people into treatment. Prosecutors are in the best position to make independent judgments."
He did not explain how he had been able to sentence defendants during his tenure on the bench, why putting people in treatment is undesirable, or why prosecutors, who live by their conviction records and are, after all, advocates, would be more solomonic than people who are paid to be so.
The Queens County chapter of "Mothers of the Disappeared," an organization opposing the Rockefeller Drug Laws, issued a press release calling Brown "New York's foremost drug war hustler," charging that "the amount of money wasted on prosecuting and incarcerating low level drug offenders is a major league fraud DA Brown is perpetrating on the citizens of Queens."