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December 7, 2004 - The New York Times

Tentative Deal Is Reached on Easing N.Y. Drug Sentences

By The Associated Press

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ALBANY, N.Y. - Negotiators reached a tentative deal Tuesday to ease some of the harshest mandatory prison sentences under the state drug statutes that carry former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's name.

The Legislature wanted to approve the agreement as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Among the reforms would be to change the current 15-years-to-life maximum sentence under the harshest of the drug statutes to a determinate sentence of eight years.

That would make offenders eligible for release in less than seven years.

The proposal would also eliminate the maximum term of life for the most serious offenses.

The common sentence of three years to life for many offenders would become a determinate sentence of three years, making offenders eligible for release in just over 2.5 years.

The roughly 400 inmates serving time under the harshest Rockefeller drug sentences-either 15-years-to-life or 25-years-to-life-would be allowed to ask their sentencing courts to reduce their prison time in line with the new sentencing guidelines.

The agreement would also make nonviolent drug offenders eligible sooner for treatment programs and double the amounts, by weight, of heroin and other controlled substances that defendants have to be caught with to qualify for the harshest of charges against defendants.

Two longtime goals of drug law reformers-giving near-total sentencing discretion to judges and allowing some offenders to avoid prison entirely in favor of treatment-are not included in the agreement.

"We believe this is half a step in the right direction," said Michael Blain, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"We believe that given some current changes in the political climate in Albany, people are beginning to rethink bad drug policy."

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said his Republican members would discuss the agreement among themselves Tuesday and that they expected to bring it to the floor for an immediate vote if they get the needed "message of necessity" from Gov. George Pataki. Pataki's office was involved in the negotiations on the measure.

Majority Republicans in the Senate have resisted sweeping changes to the drug statutes, especially ones that would weaken the role of district attorneys in determining which drug offenders should be given treatment.

Critics of the mandatory drug laws say they've caused too many low-level offenders and addicts to spend too much time in state prison.

They also say minority offenders are disproportionately sent to prison under the statutes.

Rockefeller, a Republican, pushed for the maximum-life sentences and other harsh punishments for drug offenders during an era when inner cities in the state were being inundated by heroin addiction.

Conservative legislators also complained at the time that liberal judges, primarily in New York City, were letting serious drug offenders off with light sentences.

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