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May 18, 2006 - Times Union (NY)

Editorial: Unfinished Reform

The Legislature Must Take Up Where It Left Off On The Rockefeller Era Drug Laws

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The time passes ever so slowly for the forgotten victims of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws. It was 33 years last week that New York, in its utter desperation, resorted to a harsh and unyielding approach to the problem of the sale of illegal drugs. And it's been 17 months since the Legislature and the governor took the first steps toward mending that damage.

Yet it was only last week as well that the state Assembly finally passed a bill that would extend drug law reform to more than 4,000 people in New York's prisons.

The great irony of the 2004 reform was that while it ended life sentences that often were imposed on those convicted of the most serious drug felonies, it ignored the 4,700 people incarcerated for less severe offenses. Those guilty of class B felonies can't appeal for resentencing based on the 2004 law.

It is of course laudable that the Assembly has passed legislation long pushed by Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, addressing such an inequity. But that still leaves the bill far from passage.

The harsh truth is that the Assembly has always been more committed to drug law reform than the Senate or Governor Pataki. Failure of drug law reform to go any further will be more than another chapter in the dreary tale of the Legislature and its one-house bills. It's one more occasion to remind Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno of what he had to say in December 2004.

"There is more to be done, and we're going to get there."

Last week, his stance seemed just a bit different. "We are willing to address that," Mr. Bruno said of reforming the drug laws as they apply to class B offenders, "and review that and to make sure that justice is done."

The question is when. The 2004 law seems to have taken much of the pressure off the Legislature to continue to rewrite New York's failed drug laws.

Yet every day, not to mention every legislative session, that the state's leaders duck the issue is best measured this way -- as time when drug felons could be getting the treatment Mr. Aubry's bill provides for, rather than languishing in prison cells.

Time is marked differently in prison than in the political world. There's no adjournment, as there is for the Legislature, and there are no campaigns for re-election every two years.

The word came down from the governor's office last week that Mr. Pataki had been resisting Mr. Silver's soft-on-crime policies for 11 years and 128 days. Yes, they're counting. By today, it will be 11 years and 138 days.

Only that's not such a long stretch, not by the standards of someone doing time under drug laws that should have been off the books before either Mr. Pataki or Mr. Silver ever came to power.

At the Capitol, the legislative calendar is now down to just a few weeks. But it's hardly premature to say that failure of the Senate to consider drug law reform, and the governor to embrace it, will count as another wasted year in Albany.

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