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April 19, 2007 - Ithaca Journal (NY)

Advocates Say Rockefeller Drug Laws Remain Too Harsh

By Cara Matthews, Albany Bureau

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ALBANY - Lawmakers and family members of people imprisoned on non-violent drug charges urged legislators Wednesday to further roll-back sentencing under the state's Rockefeller-era drug laws, widely considered to be among the nation's harshest.

Changes to the laws in 2004 and amendments last year called for eliminating parole and reducing overall sentences of non-violent drug offenders. Some prisoners who had committed Class A felonies, the most serious level, could apply for reduced sentences.

But lawmakers did not make changes for Class B and other lower-level felonies, said Sen. Eric Schneiderman, D-Manhattan. It expanded eligibility for prison-based drug treatment, among other changes.

Schneiderman and other lawmakers are sponsoring legislation to expand treatment programs and allow prisoners convicted of Class B felonies for non-violent drug offenses to apply for reduced sentences. It would increase sentences for violent drug dealers and "kingpins."

The legislation would "really change the culture around drug addiction in our state to focus more on treatment," Schneiderman said. It would prevent the "brutal breakup of families and long-term harm done by incarcerating people for long periods of time whose real problem is drug addiction," he added.

Sentencing reforms enacted in 2004 have resulted in the release of only 177 people, the senator said. On average, they were released 43 months before their previously calculated earliest release date.

The bill would make the following other changes:

* Increase judges' discretion and allow some people convicted of first- and second-time drug offenses to receive treatment and probation instead of prison terms.

* Set up drug courts in every county. Drug courts make special efforts to get offenders in treatment programs.

* Raise the weight thresholds for certain drug offenses so that the possible sentence times are reduced.

* Create or expand "second chance" programs for low-level drug defendants, such as the Court Approved Drug Abuse Treatment program, in which offenders' cases can be dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors upon successful completion of treatment.

The legislation on Wednesday passed the Assembly, where it is sponsored by Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens. Senate Republicans have resisted efforts to further ease the Rockefeller-era drug laws, and district attorneys have strongly opposed such measures.

Cheri O'Donoghue of New York City, said her son, Ashley, was arrested in a sting operation set up by two Hamilton College students who were cooperating with police after they were caught selling drugs on campus. They asked to buy enough cocaine from him to make the charges an A felony.

Ashley, now 24, pleaded the case down to a Class B felony and received a sentence of seven to 21 years, said Cheri O'Donoghue, whose family also has a home in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County. He has been in prison nearly four years.

People need to take responsibility for their actions, she said, but her son's punishment does not fit the crime.

"When you look at this, you have to ask yourself, 'Does this make sense?' and I don't see how anyone could come away from this and say it makes sense," she said. "We all make mistakes and I think that Ashley should have at least been given a second chance. These other two kids were given a second chance."

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that when fully implemented, the state would save about $123 million a year due to fewer prison admissions and reductions in drug-related crime.

According to the Real Reform New York Coalition, less than 30 percent of 1,000 prisoners serving time on Class A-1 and A-2 drug felonies were released after requesting re-sentencing. The re-sentencing process is much slower than expected, the group said.

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