Albany Reaches Deal to Repeal ’70s-Era Drug Laws
By Jeremy W. Peters
New York Times - March 26, 2009
ALBANY — Gov. David A. Paterson and New York legislative leaders have reached an agreement to dismantle much of what remains of the state’s strict 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the nation.
The deal would repeal many of the mandatory minimum prison sentences now in place for lower-level drug felons, giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison.
The plan would also expand drug treatment programs and widen the reach of drug courts at a cost of at least $50 million.
New York’s drug sentencing laws, imposed during a heroin epidemic that was devastating urban areas nearly four decades ago, helped spur a nationwide trend toward mandatory sentences in drug crimes. But as many other states moved to roll back the mandatory minimum sentences in recent years, New York kept its laws on the books, leaving prosecutors with the sole discretion of whether offenders could be sent to treatment.
“We’re putting judges in the position to determine sentences based on the facts of a case, and not on mandatory minimum sentences,” said Jeffrion L. Aubry, an assemblyman from Queens who has led the effort for repeal.
“To me, that is the restoration of justice.”
The agreement, which requires approval in the Assembly and the Senate, would allow some drug offenders who are currently in prison to apply to have their sentences commuted. It was not clear on Wednesday how many current prisoners would be eligible to apply. Mr. Paterson has pushed to have fewer prisoners than legislative leaders would prefer.
While a few points, like a resentencing provision and the amount the state is willing to spend on the plan, were still being negotiated late Wednesday, lawmakers said they were on track to wipe out the central elements of laws that have been criticized for decades as overly punitive and disproportionately harmful to minorities.
The laws, passed in 1973, are commonly known as the Rockefeller drug laws because they were championed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in what was considered a bold response to the sharp rise in heroin use and property crimes among young people.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Paterson, Marissa Shorenstein, said reaching the deal, which she stressed was still being forged, was a personal victory for the governor, who has made drug law reform a priority of his administration. When he was a state senator, Mr. Paterson was arrested in 2002 at a demonstration outside Gov. George E. Pataki’s Midtown Manhattan office protesting the drug laws.
The reforms, Ms. Shorenstein said, “reflect the governor’s core principle to focus on treatment rather than punishment to end the cycle of addiction.”
Under the plan, judges would have the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders in all but the most serious drug offenses — known as A-level drug felonies — to treatment. As a condition of being sent to treatment, offenders would have to plead guilty. If they did not successfully complete treatment, their case would go back before a judge, who would again have the option of imposing a prison sentence.
Currently, judges are bound by a sentencing structure that requires minimum sentences of one year for possessing small amounts of cocaine or heroin, for example. Under the agreement reached by the governor and lawmakers, a judge could order treatment for those offenders.
Judges would also have the option of sending some repeat drug offenders to treatment. Repeat offenders accused of more serious drug crimes, however, could only go to treatment if they were found to be drug-dependent in an evaluation.
District attorneys have resisted an overhaul of the state’s drug sentencing laws, arguing that the system in place has led to lower drug crime rates and allowed more drug criminals to enter treatment.
“The prison population is going down and public safety has improved, and I’d hate to do anything that would upset either of those trends,” said Michael C. Green, the district attorney of Monroe County, which includes Rochester. “No one knows for sure, but logic seems to dictate that is certainly one of the possibilities.”
In 2004, the state eliminated the life sentences some drug crimes carried as a maximum punishment and reduced the length of other drug sentences. But advocates said those changes did not go nearly far enough because they left judges bound to mandatory sentencing.
Since then, the Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats, has routinely passed legislation that repealed mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes. But the bills always failed to get past the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans until January.
Passing drug law revisions would give Senate Democrats a significant legislative victory at a time when Republicans are hammering them, saying they are disorganized and ineffective.
Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat who has led the effort in the Senate to overhaul the drug statutes, said he was confident he had support in the Senate to pass the plan.
“It’s no secret the Senate’s old majority was the primary barrier to reforming our drug laws,” he said. “But this is one of the reasons we fought so hard to take the majority. This is what our supporters have expected us to do.”
The deal comes as the state is facing a $16 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. And finding the money needed to pay for drug addiction programs, which could reach near $80 million, will prove difficult, those involved in the negotiations said.
But in the long run, the changes are expected to save money because sending offenders to treatment is less expensive than spending $45,000 a year to keep them confined.
New York already has one of the most extensive drug-treatment networks in the country. Drug policy experts said that with the proposed changes in the law, the state could have the sentencing policy it needs to fully utilize those treatment programs.
“New York could actually become a national leader,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that urges relaxation of certain drug sentencing laws. “We’re going in a public health direction here. We’re making that turn, and that’s what’s significant.”