At the last minute, New York Gov. George Pataki (R) signed into law a bill that will allow some 500 people imprisoned under the Rockefeller drug laws to appeal their sentences and perhaps get out of prison early. Pataki signed the bill in the evening of August 30, just hours before his deadline to act on it.
Pataki had publicly gone back and forth on whether he would veto the bill, and as late as the afternoon of August 30 he was sending signals he would veto it. But a last-minute telephone lobbying campaign by the bill's supporters appears to have swung the governor back in favor of signing it. The bill affects Class A2 offenders, the second most serious drug felons. Under a partial Rockefeller reform enacted last year that eliminated life sentences for both Class A1 and Class A2 offenses, only A1 offenders were allowed to retroactively appeal their sentences. Now, A2 offenders will get that opportunity as well.
But they shouldn't start packing their bags just yet. Under last year's bill, some 450 Class A1 offenders were granted the right to appeal their sentences, but the process has been slow and difficult, and many of them remain behind bars.
The law takes effect 60 days from Tuesday. Passed earlier this year by both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-led Assembly, it applies only to felons convicted of Class A2 crimes, the second-highest drug offenses. They will be able to petition for resentencing under a new sentence structure Pataki and legislative leaders agreed on last year. The deal did away with life sentences for the highest-level Class A1 crimes and A2 crimes, but allowed only A1 offenders to retroactively appeal their sentences.
About 450 A1-level offenders were eligible for resentencing under last year's changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated long to life sentences for those convicted of selling or buying relatively small amounts of narcotics. But the appeal process has proved more difficult than expected, and many A1 prisoners remain incarcerated.
"These are complicated cases," said Randy Credico, director of the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which is representing some prisoners pro bono. "We started one in February that's still going on... The Kunstler Fund has been bled to death by resentencing hearings," he told the Times-Union (Albany).
While drug reform advocates praised Pataki for signing the bill, they called for more, deeper reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. So far, the partial reforms passed by the legislature have not touched on Class B drug prisoners, who make up the vast majority of those imprisoned under those laws. "Last December, we took two steps forward, and this is another step forward, but we still have 10 steps to go," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been a key player in working for the reform or repeal of those laws.