With Competing Drug Reform Bills Passed, NY Governor and Assembly Have One Week to Reach Compromise 6/14/02

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In a sudden spate of political maneuvering after months of inactivity on the issue, the New York Assembly last week passed a bill to reform the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. This week, the New York Senate approved a different reform bill, one sponsored by Republican Gov. George Pataki. Now the Democrat-led Assembly and Gov. Pataki have one week to settle their differences before the legislative session ends. For drug reformers who have lobbied for years to repeal the Rockefeller laws, however, neither proposal goes nearly far enough.

Under the Rockefeller laws, passed under Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 and 1974, persons convicted of possessing four ounces of hard drugs or two ounces for sale are subject to a sentence of 15-years-to-life. Other drug offenders are subjected to similarly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. More than 19,000 men and women are currently imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws, 94% of them non-white.

While Gov. Pataki has for the past two years claimed he wanted to reform the Rockefeller laws, progress had been stymied by Pataki's refusal to relinquish prosecutorial control over sentencing decisions, his demand that parole be eliminated as part of the reforms, and his efforts to add punitive enhancements (using the Internet, selling in a park) to actually increase some sentences.

With its bill last week, the Assembly moved toward a compromise with Pataki and the Republican-led state Senate. Under both bills, broad groups of drug offenders would remain ineligible for diversion into drug treatment, including all A-1 and A-2 (most serious) offenders, all non-addicted offenders, anyone previously convicted of a "violent crime" (including misdemeanor assault, i.e. punching someone), offenders who committed a drug offense involving minors, and persons who committed a drug offense on school grounds.

Similarly, both bills provide for substantial prosecutorial involvement in diverting offenders into treatment or drug court. Both give prosecutors the first shot at decision-making, but the Assembly bill provides for stronger judicial review of prosecutorial decisions.

Regarding retroactivity, both the governor's bill and the Assembly bill provide for limited redress for offenders already serving time. Under the governor's bill, only A-1 offenders -- those serving 15-years-to-life -- are eligible for resentencing, leaving the largest group of drug offenders, the B class, without any redress. The Assembly bill provides retroactivity for A and B class offenders, with some restrictions.

Parole elimination had been a particular sticking point and still is. Under the governor's bill, parole would be eliminated for all drug offenders, in line with Pataki's desire to do away with parole throughout the state criminal justice system. The Assembly bill, on the other hand, retains parole for all but A class offenders -- those doing the longest stretches. "These two proposals share a lot of similarities and a lot of fundamental problems," said Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York. "They fall far short of what is needed, which is full repeal of the Rockefeller laws and return to judicial discretion over sentencing," he told DRCNet. "Both bills exclude large categories of prisoners from judicial diversion to treatment, both bills have punitive enhancements that will increase some sentences," said Gangi, whose organization is part of the Drop The Rock (http://www.droptherock.org) coalition seeking full repeal of the Rockefeller laws.

Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, another Drop The Rock member group, was equally unhappy with the competing bills. "If either of these bills passes, New York will go from having the worst drug laws in the nation to having the worst drug laws in the nation," he told DRCNet. "I am disappointed in both parties," he said. "This was a great opportunity to drastically reform the Rockefeller laws and create a model for the rest of the country, but both parties fell way short," said Credico.

Now, as the clock ticks and the state waits for Pataki to sit down with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to cut a back-room deal, drug reformers face a dilemma. "We don't want to wait a year for something to happen," said Credico. "But if a half-hearted reform bill passes this year, will that stop the momentum for full repeal? On the other hand, there are a lot of people in prison in a hopeless situation, and any step forward will give them some hope."

Whatever happens, Credico promised, "people will continue to mobilize if people don't start getting out of jail. This mobilization needs to continue until it looks like the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We need an organic grassroots movement of Blacks and Latinos, and we need to be looking at broader issues of social justice. Until that happens, there will be no jobs, no education, no housing programs for poor Blacks and Latinos," said Credico. "But with the movement where it is, it's not enough. Three hundred people at a rally isn't enough; we need 10,000 people. We need that sort of pressure; it's the asses of the masses that make a difference."

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