With the New Year comes an old appeal to the slow-moving politicians of Albany, where the state Legislature has been branded the "most dysfunctional in the nation" in a stinging report published last July by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The appeal comes from attorneys and social activists concerned with what they call "draconian" terms of incarceration for more than 100,000 New Yorkers who over the past three decades years have been prosecuted under the nation's harshest criminal drug laws.
Early last month, the Legislature adopted modest changes to the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were enacted in 1973 under then-Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. Both Republican and Democratic leaders acknowledged in an Albany press conference that the amendments were "partial reform."
Opponents of the stiff penalties for first-time, nonviolent offenders are busy organizing to create a momentum for yet more change.
Anthony Papa, an artist and drug law reform activist who was sentenced to 15 years to life at Sing Sing for delivering an envelope of cocaine in exchange for $500 toward his rent during a period of unemployment, bluntly stated the agenda.
"What we're trying to do is change the power structure," Mr. Papa, who was released from prison after 12 years under a grant of clemency by Governor George E. Pataki, said in an interview. "Which means we want to take the power away from the district attorneys and give it back to the judges to look at the totality of facts."
During his imprisonment, Mr. Papa discovered painting and developed his art to the point where his work has been exhibited in the Whitney Museum. Post-prison, he has been involved in a number of causes in opposition to the drug laws, among them the Drug Policy Alliance. Mr. Papa also has written of his experiences in "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom," published last month.
Manhattan attorney Andrew Cuomo, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, was active last year in Real Reform, a coalition of some 300 state and national organizations that pressed Albany to do away with the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The partial reform he and others won, he said, was a first step that fell far short of the goal.
"It wasn't the solution," said Mr. Cuomo, who criticized the drug laws during his failed campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. "It was in many ways a cynical political move that only confirmed the [Legislature's] dysfunction."
William Gibney, senior attorney for the special litigation unit of the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense division, said the Legislature's recent reform effort "at least recognized that longer sentences alone are not a solution to the drug problem, and that alternative ways of dealing with the issue can be effective."
He identified some relief in the reforms for an estimated 460 offenders who could make immediate application for parole. Mr. Gibney said he has been in discussions with the New York Department of Correctional Services on the matter of resentencing under partial reform, which includes additional merit time off for good behavior. The department is running a computer check for those inmates eligible for immediate parole board appearances, said Mr. Gibney. Termination of parole obligations for "a substantial number" of non-violent offenders could be granted under the new rules, he added.
"This is only the beginning of ending the unjust Rockefeller laws," said Michael Blain, public policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the principal group within the Real Reform coalition. "We will keep coming back until we have achieved full judicial discretion, more sentence reduction, retroactivity, and treatment."
District Attorney Kevin L. Wright of Putnam County, president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, said his colleagues are not opposed to "meaningful reform that would help offenders regain their lives." On the contrary, he said that the state's 62 district attorneys have been "at the cutting edge and the vanguard" of helping non-violent offenders avoid prison through programs such as residential Drug Treatment Alternatives to Prison.
While both Mr. Wright and a statement from the district attorneys' group applauded the Legislature's decision to end life sentences for the highest level drug crimes, they criticized lawmakers on other points.
"The bill does not fund drug treatment programs, nor does it enhance penalties for drug dealers who use guns, children or the Internet in their schemes," the district attorneys' group said in a statement. "Instead, the bill reduces sentences for virtually all drug crimes, and raises the threshold weights of drugs that must be possessed to commit certain crimes, thus softening the punishment of drug crimes whether committed by addicts or by predatory dealers motivated purely by greed. Existing early-release programs will further accelerate the release of these offenders into the community."
Mr. Wright cautioned that offenders in drug treatment programs are motivated to succeed in the face of long prison sentences. According to the district attorneys' statement, shorter sentences mean both decreased deterrent effect and "little incentive to the addict to choose the alternative of rigorous treatment, which may take three times as long [as a prison sentence]."
New Role as DA
Somewhat sidelined in this year's fight will be the young lawyer credited by political observers as the man whose startling electoral success was key to inspiring partial reform: Albany County District Attorney David Soares, 35, who handily defeated his predecessor, Paul Clyne, an outspoken supporter of harsh sentences.
"David is the DA now, and his job is to execute the law as written," said Richard Arthur, a spokesman for Mr. Soares. "He doesn't want to take an active role in [new] legislation."
Speaking for himself, Mr. Soares added, "We should always strive to improve existing policies."
Among the first things Mr. Soares did on Monday, his first day on the job, was to appoint 21-year-old Amanda M. Paeglow, a non-lawyer criminology student at the State University of New York at Albany, as community prosecution coordinator. Ms. Paeglow said she is charged with restoring and expanding a federally funded program administered by Mr. Soares when he was an assistant prosecutor under Mr. Clyne.
Operating in a single Albany neighborhood, Mr. Soares' program used an appointed board of community leaders to make alternative sentencing recommendations to county judges for first-time, non-violent, low-level drug offenders. When Mr. Soares informed Mr. Clyne that he would challenge his re-election, Mr. Clyne fired Mr. Soares. As a result, said Ms. Paeglow, the board quit.
"We're in the process of getting the board back together, and making it better," she said, "and taking it countywide."
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