ALBANY, Dec. 7 - After years of false starts, state lawmakers voted Tuesday evening to reduce the steep mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes in New York State, sanctions considered among the most severe in the nation.
The push to soften the so-called Rockefeller drug laws came after a nearly decade-long campaign to ease the drug penalties instituted in the 1970's that put some low-level first-time drug offenders behind bars for sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
Under the changes passed Tuesday, which Gov. George E. Pataki said he would sign, the sentence for those same offenders would be reduced to 8 to 20 years in prison. The law will allow more than 400 inmates serving lengthy prison terms on those top counts to apply to judges to get out of jail early.
The changes reflected a nationwide push in recent years to lessen some of the punishments for drug offenders, as states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have moved to emphasize drug treatment options or to give judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of narcotics crimes.
The law's passage also represented a major achievement for a state legislature that studies have called the least efficient in the nation.
Until now, state leaders have strived for years and without success to overhaul the drug laws, named for Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was governor when they were enacted.
The State Legislature also broke another logjam Tuesday when it passed a bill authorizing the expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the West Side of Manhattan so that New York City could compete with other cities for major conventions.
As part of that deal, the Republican-led State Senate won a provision that $350 million would be spent on other projects outside of New York City, and the Democrat-controlled State Assembly ensured that the bill remained neutral on the question of whether to allow the New York Jets to build a football stadium on the site.
While some elected officials and drug policy advocates hailed the drug sentencing changes as a major step forward, others complained that they did not go far enough.
They complained that inmates serving what they called unduly long prison terms for lesser crimes would not be allowed to apply for early release, and that judges were not given the power to sentence some offenders to treatment programs rather than prison.
"This is it?" an exasperated State Senator Thomas Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, shouted during the debate.
"This is it? After all this time, this is what comes to the floor? It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug reform."
But Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul who had vigorously pushed for the changes, said he was "very, very happy," and credited pressure from the hip-hop community for raising awareness on the issue.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver credited a changed political landscape - including the election of a new district attorney in Albany County, David Soares, who ran with the backing of the Working Families Party on a platform seeking drug-law changes - for bringing the state's leaders to a compromise.
He said he would continue to push for more changes next year.
"It isn't everything we wanted, and I think we will continue to press for some of those things, but I think the climate has changed here," he said.
In the mad scramble of late-session activity, though, several significant issues remained undone: how to comply with a court order requiring the state to fix New York City's schools, and how to overhaul a budget process that has yielded late budgets for 20 years in a row.
Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate Republican majority leader, backed away from a plan to override Governor Pataki's veto of the budget overhaul bill that the Legislature passed earlier this year.
Governor Pataki said the new drug law "reflects a greater knowledge than we had 30 years ago."
Senator Bruno urged his colleagues not to underestimate the importance of their vote to change the state's drug laws.
"We are doing something here that changes people's lives," he said, citing the case of Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years in prison for a single sale of cocaine, and whose story was chronicled this year in "Life on the Outside" by Jennifer Gonnerman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). "And don't minimize it. Please don't minimize it."
Still, he said, "There is more to be done, and we're going to get there."
A study by the Democrats in the State Senate found that New York imposed the harshest penalties in the nation for low-level drug offenders.
It found that 32 states, including Texas and Florida, offer probation to nonviolent offenders who sell small amounts of drugs, and that New York was the only state that required more than three years in prison for such offenses.
But year after year, talks to overhaul the laws have fallen apart.
To reach a compromise, the Senate and Governor Pataki gave up on their calls to increase penalties in some areas for drug kingpins, drug dealers who use children as couriers and drug dealers who use guns.
The Assembly gave up its calls to give judges the discretion to sentence offenders to treatment instead of prison, to allow more inmates to seek early release and to add more treatment options.
Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat who has led the Assembly's efforts to overhaul the drug laws for years, said: "We reached a point where you're going to do something this year or you're not. So, since nobody was willing to give on those other issues, you boil it down to what you can concur on."
But a number of drug policy advocates complained that even with the changes, the state's drug laws remained unduly harsh, and that the new law did not change the state's basic approach to fighting drugs, which they said has failed.
Robert Gangi, the executive director of Correctional Association of New York, a prison monitoring group, said that the current system was still weighted in favor of prosecutors.
"What mandatory sentencing means is that judges no longer have the authority to make the threshold decision of whether someone should be incarcerated or not," he said. "We're supposed to have an adversarial system: the defense attorney on one side, the D.A. on the other side. And the judge is the neutral arbiter who is supposed to weigh their claims. What mandatory sentencing does is stack the deck in favor of one side in the adversarial process, and that is the prosecutors."
Mr. Gangi complained that after years of negotiations, and a brief flirtation with public conference committees, the final agreement was reached behind closed doors, with interested parties unable to weigh in.
One district attorney who was happy to see the change was Mr. Soares, the incoming district attorney of Albany County, who upset an incumbent, Paul Clyne, in a race dominated by their debate on the drug laws. And on Monday, District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau of Manhattan called for overhauling the laws.
Bertha Lewis, the co-chairwoman of the Working Families Party, which backed Mr. Soares's candidacy, said, "The incumbent D.A. paid a political price for his public opposition to reforming arcane and outdated laws, and clearly the State Legislature took notice."
Governor Pataki said that the deal struck Tuesday was largely the same as one that was nearly sealed in 2003 during a bizarre late-night negotiating session on the second floor of the Capitol with the leaders of the Legislature and Mr. Simmons. (Assemblyman Aubry, famously, was left outside the closed-door meeting.)
Mr. Simmons said that he was pleased something had finally happened.
"I think it is a big win," he said. "Do I believe that there is more room? Yes is the answer. I think the people who fought, the kids who came out, the artists who worked hard, I think they will embrace it. It shows their power. That they have a political might that can be used to benefit the state and the country."
Al Baker contributed reporting for this article.
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