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August 16, 2004 - The Albany Times-Union (NY)

Soares Calls For Reform Of Drug Laws

Challenger In District Attorney Race Speaks At Church, Claims State's Stance Fails To Halt Dealing

By Ken Thurman, Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Albany -- David Soares took his campaign for Albany County district attorney to the pulpit Sunday, calling for a repeal to the tough Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Soares was guest speaker at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on State Street where he told congregants that the laws, which mandate stiff prison terms for even minor drug offenses, are archaic and do little to deter drug-related crime.

He said alternative approaches that emphasize treatment programs, education and job opportunities are needed to effectively tackle the problem.

"We need to stop creating criminals and start creating hope," said Soares, who is making repeal of the drug laws the centerpiece of his grass-roots campaign.

Soares, 34, is hoping to unseat his former boss and fellow Democrat, District Attorney Paul Clyne, in a Sept. 14 primary. The Republican candidate is Roger Kusick.

"Basically we have a law enforcement philosophy that focuses strictly on buy-and-bust operations, but there are no long-term operations designed to go after the big fish and the distribution network," said Soares, a former community prosecutor in the Albany County District Attorney's Office.

"The current policy is a failed one that does not address issues that occur on our streets in terms of reducing drug trafficking," added Soares, who said he was fired by Clyne earlier this year after he announced that he was going to run for office against him.

He said that in most poor areas of Albany there are few employment opportunities for youth, who might be tempted to join gangs or sell drugs.

"But how many dope dealers can kids get jobs with. ... The answer is right outside the door," he said.

"If we're not focusing on prevention or social infrastructure ... all we are going to be doing is locking people up," he said.

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws -- named after former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller -- mandate judges to use strict sentencing guidelines for many minor and nonviolent drug offenses. In most cases, the circumstances surrounding the offense cannot be taken in account by the judge.

Often, according to Soares, the poor get caught up in the web of the system. He also noted that the drug laws disproportionately affect the minority community and that 93 percent of the 17,000 offenders currently jailed under the laws are black or Latino.

While not excusing those who break the law, Soares said that often the crime does not fit the punishment meted out.

For instance, some of the laws mandate that an offender must be sentenced to 15 years for possessing even small amounts of narcotics.

Soares' appearance at the church Sunday was a precursor to a series of open forums on the issue being sponsored by the faith-based organization Arise -- A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment.

The first forum will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Evangelical United Church of Christ, 82 Clinton St. The Second Avenue, Delaware Avenue and Mansion neighborhood associations also are sponsors.

Others are slated for Aug. 23 at the Bethlehem Public Library and Sept. 2 at Christ the King Catholic Church, 90 Sumpter Ave.

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