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January 2, 2007 - Times Union (NY)

Put Drug Laws On Day One Docket

By Gabriel Sayegh, project director at the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City.

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New Yorkers are waiting to see whether Gov. Eliot Spitzer's campaign slogan -- "Day One, Everything Changes" -- is genuine, or just a slogan. There are a number of issues that warrant the attention of the new administration, and reforming the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws should be a priority.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws, passed in 1973, mandate harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for simple, low-level drug offenses. Under these laws, people convicted of first-time drug offenses receive 8 to 20 years in prison. While the state spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year imprisoning drug offenders, spending on community-based drug treatment is pitifully low. Indeed, treatment options for people with drug problems are too limited, especially for low-income people.

There are more than 14,000 people in New York prisons under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Nationwide, over 500,000 people are incarcerated on drug offenses, more than any other industrialized nation (and more than the European Union, with 100 million more residents, incarcerates for all offenses combined).

But perhaps the most despicable aspect of the Rockefeller Drug Laws is the institutional racism associated with their application. More than 90 percent of the people incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws are black and Latino, even though whites use and sell illegal drugs at approximately equal rates. There is no excuse for this disparity.

With New York City reeling from yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man, questions of institutional racism in policing practices are fresh on the minds of New Yorkers. Spitzer should take note: Recent polls show that nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers believe the Rockefeller Drug Laws should be repealed.

These policies, ineffective and racist, waste thousands lives and millions of dollars each year. The laws were moderately reformed two years ago, but as Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno said of the 2004 reforms, "More needs to be done." Advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and leaders across the political spectrum agreed, as did Lt. Gov. David Paterson, a longtime champion of reform. Yet real reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws remains unfinished.

Spitzer can complete drug law reform by doing five things:

1. Restore judicial discretion. Under mandatory minimum sentencing practices, judges have no discretion in sentencing. For example, whether the offense is a person's first, or they are simply a mule, is irrelevant. Organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Bar Association, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have all called for an end to mandatory minimums because they constitute unfair practices.

2. Fund treatment. A study by the RAND Corporation found that treatment is 15 times more effective -- and far cheaper -- than incarceration in reducing drug abuse and related crime. In California, voters passed Prop. 36 in 2000, diverting people arrested for first- and second-time simple drug possession into community-based treatment, not prison. A recent UCLA study found that Prop. 36 is highly successful. Some 5,000 people a year receive treatment instead of prison, saving state taxpayers $1.3 billion.

3. Enact sentencing reform. The Rockefeller Drug Laws are draconian because the sentences are so inhumane. We need further sentencing reform, including reform of the Second Felony Offender Act, and an increased use of alternatives to incarceration. Eight to 20 years for a first-time, nonviolent offense is what we'd expect from a dictatorship, not a democracy.

4. Apply retroactivity. Sentencing reforms should apply retroactively to the more than 14,000 people currently incarcerated because of these laws.

5. Focus on re-entry. Tie these reforms together with a comprehensive re-entry plan, providing wrap-around services such as drug treatment and job training for people returning to our communities from prison. Help them become productive, taxpaying citizens instead of being a prison number.

By doing all this, Spitzer can ensure that people with addictions receive treatment instead of a jail cell; he can save taxpayer dollars while improving public safety; and he can help end the institutional racism in our criminal justice system. New Yorkers will be watching to make sure Spitzer holds true to his campaign promises. Anything less will not be real reform.

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