Revising the drug laws

December 13, 2004

NEW YORK'S drug laws have been denounced and decried for years as among the harshest in the nation, setting disproportionately long sentences for relatively low-level offenses. So when state lawmakers approved some modest changes last week, the move was hailed as an important step. But it's only a first one. While the changes are welcome, they still don't go far enough.

It was in the 1970s, when Nelson Rockefeller was governor and heroin and violent crime were rampant, that New York got tough on people convicted of drug crimes. The so-called Rockefeller drug laws started a wave of mandatory minimum sentences across the nation that caused the prison population to overflow. But who was filling the cells? By concentrating on possession and sales, the New York laws trapped a lot of small-time street salesmen and users, but generally not the big drug kingpins. Sentences for those caught using or selling a couple of ounces of heroin or cocaine ranged from 15 years to life. For the most part, judges couldn't make allowances if the defendant was a first-time offender, did not use violence or was merely a minor player in the transaction. Clearly, the laws were meant to deter. But when a single sale of cocaine results in a 16-year prison sentence, that's draconian.

New Yorkers and others have been saying that for years, but it has taken a long time for the legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled state Senate, to act. Among other things, the election of a pro-reform district attorney in the state legislature's back yard convinced lawmakers that it was finally time for a change. Instead of 15 years to life, top felony offenders could receive sentences of eight to 20 years in prison. More than 400 of those offenders who are already serving time will be able to apply for resentencing based on the new, reduced penalties.

That's cause for muted celebration. The new law still targets lower-level possessors and users, still denies judges meaningful discretion and still fails to make meaningful distinctions as to relative culpability of offenders.

In that regard, New York could take some cues from Maryland. A substance-abuse law that recently went into effect gives parole board members discretion to send low-level, nonviolent offenders into treatment as a condition of parole. It also allows prosecutors to send similar offenders to treatment, bypassing court, with the possibility of having the arrest record expunged to make it easier for the rehabbed offender to gain employment. The state is also putting an additional $4 million into treatment programs.

But there's still more to be done. During the next legislative session in Annapolis, a coalition of reform advocates will also press to reduce minimum drug sentences and to push even more nonviolent offenders into treatment. It's a balanced and reasonable approach to drug offenses that puts Maryland on the right side of reform.

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