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May 12, 2004 - The Albany Times Union (NY)

Opinion: End Drug Law Impasse

State Lawmakers Have An Added Incentive To Reform The Draconian Rockefeller Statutes

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Like so many other important issues, Rockefeller Drug Law reform has been a victim of Capitol gridlock.

Time and again, the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-led Assembly have failed to reach a compromise. That has left thousands of inmates languishing in state prisons, 80 percent of whom are nonviolent offenders.

According to the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group, more than half of the 17,000 drug offenders now behind bars were convicted of low-level offenses.

Yet under the Rockefeller statutes, sentences can range from 15 years to life, and judges have no discretion to consider the circumstances surrounding the offense.

Now there is a chance, a genuine one, that some progress might be made this year. In an encouraging development, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, have called for a conference committee to examine the issue.

That is the first step toward a bipartisan agreement.

These draconian laws have not only failed to achieve their goal -- Gov. Rockefeller naively believed they would rid the state of drug crime -- but they have also fallen disproportionately on those at the lowest rung of the drug chain.

The kingpin pushers have always been able to escape conviction by relying on runners -- many of them minors -- to deliver their goods. At the same time, the drug laws have sent thousands of drug users to prison, when they would be better served by treatment programs.

Reform is warranted if for no other reason than to right this imbalance.

The best way to do that would be to allow judges to determine sentences, and to decide if a defendant should be sent to a treatment program rather than to prison. An Assembly reform bill would do just that, but the Senate version reserves discretion for prosecutors.

The state's district attorneys have been among the strongest supporters of the Rockefeller Drug Laws because the statutes give them leverage to extract plea bargains from suspects.

But these laws should not be about the self-interest of prosecutors; they should be about justice.

Regrettably, that argument has had little impact over the years. But now a new one just might.

As the Correctional Association notes, the Rockefeller drug laws are costly, far more so than rehabilitation programs. And at a time when state lawmakers are facing a court order to substantially increase state aid to public schools, the cost factor takes on even greater significance.

The association estimates that reform could save some $250 million a year, based on a $60,000 annual cost to keep a single offender behind bars.

It would be nice if reform were rooted in principle. But if the economic argument proves to be the motivating force behind a compromise, so be it. Better that lawmakers do the right thing for pragmatic reasons than not at all.

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