N.Y. governor vows to soften drug law this year

But Democrats, GOP deadlock over proposals


ALBANY, N.Y. - Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican with a tough-on-crime record, promised this year to soften New York's most severe tough-on-crime laws: the mandatory sentences for drug offenses passed in the 1970s.

The so-called Rockefeller laws, passed in an era of rampant crime and a heroin epidemic, required a 15-year-to-life sentence for the top class of drug offenders, known as Class B, which means people convicted of possessing at least 4 ounces of cocaine or heroin or of selling at least 2 ounces.

The vast majority of people arrested on drug crimes are charged with Class B felonies.

In recent years, with the state's crime rate at historic lows, pressure to ease or repeal the laws has grown. Many serving long sentences are black and Latino, and many maintain that the laws, as enforced, are discriminatory. More than 21,000 people are serving time for drug convictions in New York state, about 95 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. About 70 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Pataki's initial bill met stiff opposition in the Democratic-led Assembly, because it still required a sentence of at least 10 years for the top class of offenders and judges would still have no discretion to divert offenders to treatment without a prosecutor's approval.

The Assembly majority countered with a bill that would have given trial judges complete discretion over the nonviolent Class B felons. That bill had no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

After several months of deadlock, the governor came back with a bill that would have allowed the diversion of some drug offenders to treatment programs in prison. But instead of giving the trial judge discretion, the bill would have sent these defendants to a specially trained judge who would have ruled on their eligibility for drug treatment based on strict criteria.

The Democrats rejected the second proposal for many reasons. They thought it set up too many hurdles for the Class B felons, such as the hearing before a judge with expertise on drug addiction. Some sections of the bill also gave prosecutors more power, allowing them, for instance, to pull a defendant out of drug treatment and put him on trial if he relapsed into his habit once. Since most addicts relapse at least once before recovery, Democrats saw that provision as dooming the program to failure.

Still, many on both sides of the issue predict that a compromise bill will pass this year. Democrats pushing for an overhaul see this year as a rare opportunity to get the governor to help them.

Pataki is running for re-election next year and has been trying to make inroads among black and Hispanic voters. Groups supporting the repeal of the laws have been running ads urging the governor to deliver on his promise.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.