Drug Reform Battle Heats Up in New York: Pataki Package Would Increase Marijuana Penalties, Democrats Offer Alternative Bills, Activists Don't Like Either Version 3/16/01

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Efforts to amend the "Rockefeller laws," New York's draconian drug sentences, are coming to a head as the state legislature prepares to deal with opposing plans offered by Republican Gov. George Pataki and Democratic State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Both proposals are a curious mix of sentencing reductions, mandatory treatment programs, and tough-on-crime rhetoric designed to ensure that Empire State politicians can soften some of the Rockefeller laws' harsh aspects while not appearing "soft on drugs."

While the conventional wisdom is that some changes to the Rockefeller laws are possible this year, New York drug reformers are increasingly skeptical about the nature of any changes and some are beginning to prepare a long-term strategy for repeal, not mere reform, of the Rockefeller laws.

"The Assembly's proposal, especially in comparison to the governor's, is a major step on the path to significant reform," said Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York (http://www.corrassoc.org), "but it's still well short of the mark. It is important that any changes aren't cosmetic or a step backward," he told DRCNet. "We don't want and won't support a bill that is dressed up as reform, but essentially maintains the status quo."

Nicolas Eyle of ReconsiDer (http://www.reconsider.org), a New York-based citizen drug reform group, also remains skeptical. "Pataki's proposal was pretty poor from the beginning," Eyle told DRCNet, "and the Democratic proposal, while better, is frankly disappointing."

"There is an increasingly important issue here for drug reformers," said Eyle, "and that is the issue of incrementalism versus going for the brass ring. A lot of people are delighted to get whatever crumbs they can, but my rule of thumb is that if the legislation doesn't require a paradigm shift, then I'm not supporting it. Legalization would be a paradigm shift, medical marijuana is a paradigm shift, tinkering with sentences or forcing people into treatment is not."

Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (http://www.kunstler.org) sees little of value in either proposal.

"They both suck," he told DRCNet. "I want to end the war, not have it continue as a Cold War. People have to create a tough opposition to these proposals, or we'll end up with a bad reform. I'm willing to wait another year and mobilize for real reform."

The increasingly skeptical views of drug reformers come as both Gov. Pataki and the Democratic majority in the Assembly are finally providing detailed proposals.

"The devil is in the details," Gangi told DRCNet.

The detailed bill that Gov. Pataki released last week would seem to indicate that the oscillating governor has swung back toward the camp of state prosecutors, who bitterly oppose any reforms that would reduce their power. While still attempting to wear the reformer's cap by calling for some sentencing reductions, the governor would also end parole for drug offenders, increase some penalties for major traffickers, and dramatically increase prison sentences for possession or sale of large amounts (more than 20 pounds or sale of more than two pounds) of marijuana, and would increase penalties for those arrested on drug charges in public parks. (Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/167.html#pataki for our coverage of the governor's initial remarks announcing his intention to introduce a reform package.)

The Democratic proposal goes considerably further than Pataki's, extending sentencing discretion to Class B felons, who make up the majority of people charged with drug crimes, providing for expanded mandatory treatment programs, and doubling the amount of drugs necessary to qualify for Class A felonies, with their harsh, mandatory sentences.

The Assembly's sentencing changes would:

  • Increase possession thresholds required to meet the most serious Class A-I and A-II felony sentences. This change would not be applicable to major drug offenders;
  • Increase penalties for major drug traffickers from 15-25 years to life to 15-30 years to life;
  • Increase the sentences for adult offenders who sell or attempt to sell drugs over the Internet;
  • Reduce mandatory sentences for most class A-I felons who are not major drug traffickers who currently are subject to mandatory life terms. Courts would retain the discretion, however, to impose the current higher minimums and maximum life sentences, even for persons who are not major traffickers. Offenders with a prior violent felony conviction would not receive any sentencing reduction;
  • Allow a limited group of eligible inmates to petition the sentencing court to have their sentences adjusted to reflect sentencing under the plan; and
  • Allow Class A-I convicted felons with no violent felony conviction to be sentenced alternatively, with the consent of the prosecutor, as Class B felony offenders.
  • For nonviolent, lower-level drug offenders, the Assembly plan would reduce the minimum sentencing requirements but would keep maximum sentences unchanged.
(The Assembly's press release detailing the proposal and background materials are available online at http://assembly.state.ny.us/Press/2001/20010314/ and http://assembly.state.ny.us/reports/drugreform/ respectively.)

"This situation here is a real mess," Eyle told DRCNet. "I'm afraid that they're going to pass some of these changes and then if we try in the future to get a better bill, they'll say, 'we already addressed that.' Passing half-way reform measures will only hurt efforts for real reform."

"If the Democratic bill passed in its entirety, that would be an improvement, whereas Pataki's changes would only make an infinitesimal difference," said Eyle. "But I don't think the Assembly bill will pass as is."

The Kunstler Fund's Credico is ready to take it to the streets again, as he has repeatedly with demonstrations at the statehouse and at the offices of prosecutors opposing any reforms.

"This is not reform, this is unacceptable," he told DRCNet. "We're calling for a massive demonstration in front of Pataki's New York City office on May 8th. If we can't get a decent bill, it will be time for continued activism and civil disobedience. We'll start pushing for jury nullification, we'll urge Legal Aid to end plea bargaining. We could bring this system to its knees."

"And that Pataki wants to throw people in prison for marijuana is outrageous," fumed Credico. Those people aren't hurting anybody. Leave them alone."

Gangi, if a little more sanguine than Credico, was no more pleased with the proposals.

"The battle has been joined, the lines have been drawn," he said. "Our coalition, the Drop the Rock Campaign, will fight to abolish the Rockefeller laws, restore judicial discretion in all drug cases, and to establish the retroactivity principle, where inmates can petition for review of their sentences."

"We need repeal. If it isn't repeal, we aren't supporting it."

-- END --
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Issue #177, 3/16/01 Dedication: Patrick Dorismond | Students Helping Students, HEA Update | Colombian Governors Come to Washington to Denounce Plan Colombia, DRCNet Interviews Tolima Governor Jaramillo | US District Court Overturns Mandatory Drug Tests in Texas School, Lockney Policy Was Nation's Broadest | Drug Reform Battle Heats Up in New York: Pataki Package Would Increase Marijuana Penalties, Democrats Offer Alternative Bills, Activists Don't Like Either Version | New Mexico Update: Ups and Downs for Johnson's Reform Package, State GOP in an Uproar | In Another Step on Path to Cannabis Decrim, Swiss Government Submits Proposed Law to Parliament | Hemispheric Parliamentarians Reject Debate on Drug Legalization | Uruguayan Leader Takes Legalization Views Online, Recommends Traffic | Narco News: Mexican Federal Police Chief Calls for Legalization, Bush Adds Another Half Billion to Colombia Fire | San Francisco Conference Looks at Women and the Drug War | Job Listing: Access Works! in Minneapolis | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: The Rule of Law
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