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New York State Drug Law Reform Stalls
News Analysis by Terence T. Gorski

GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: June 14, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Efforts to resolve the differences between Republicans and Democrats on relaxing New York State's drug sentencing laws have stalled over three critical issues:  

(1)   Will the judges or prosecutors call the shots on whether Class B drug felons, who make up 28% of imprisoned drug offenders, go to prison or receive treatment;  

(2)   Will funding be increased for drug treatment behind the bars; and 

(3)   What will the length of sentences for each drug crime and how those sentences should vary based upon the drug involved.  

This is unfortunate because the current drug laws hurt addicted people, their families, and their communities.  Harsh drug laws have failed to slow the rate of drug abuse and addiction, to make drugs less available on the streets, or to lower the rate of drug related crime and violence.  It's time that all states trade in their ineffective war on drugs legislation in favor of more effective laws based upon Public Health Addiction Policy.

Terence T. Gorski
June 14, 20001

New York State Drug Law Reform Stalls


Published On: June 14, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Efforts to reach a deal to relax New York's drug sentencing laws have stalled, leaving some proponents worried that no revisions will be made this summer.

In January, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, threw his weight behind the idea of easing the laws, which mandate long prison sentences for drug felons, including many low-level street dealers and addicts. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, soon did the same. And advocates on both sides of the issue predicted that a consensus would be reached during the 2001 legislative session.

But no substantive discussions have begun among the governor and the two men who control the State Legislature. Not even closed-door negotiations — where legislative compromises are usually reached — have gotten under way, according to aides to the lawmakers, as well as state officials and advocates who have a stake in the legislation.

All sides blame the state budget impasse — and the resulting tensions in Albany these days — for the lack of talks on drug laws.

Differences between Republicans and Democrats on the drug laws are extreme. Chief among them is what to do about the biggest chunk of serious drug felons in the system. Last year, these so-called Class B felons made up more than 28 percent of all those imprisoned on drug felonies.

The Assembly proposal would hand judges the discretion to decide whether to send these felons to prison or to treatment. The governor's proposal would require judges to get the prosecutors' permission. Under the current mandatory sentencing system, judges have virtually no authority over sentencing; they are bound by the weight of the drugs seized and the defendant's felony record. Only prosecutors can decide who can be sent to treatment instead of prison.

With barely a week left until the official close of the legislative session, neither side is ready to sound the death knell on drug law changes.

Still, among those who have spent years agitating for change, the optimism of early spring has dimmed.

"There's no forward motion," said John R. Dunne, who served in the State Senate as a Republican and now lobbies to loosen the mandatory sentencing laws. "Staking out a position is one thing. Following up and acting on it is what's needed for real leadership."

Mr. Dunne places that onus on the Democratic leadership of the Assembly. "It needs more than a nudge," he said. "It needs a very strong demonstration of real support."

For their part, the Assembly Democrats, whose 80-page bill was introduced just three weeks ago and has yet to come to the floor for a vote, remain upbeat.

On a measure as highly charged as this, they say, negotiations cannot begin until meaningful budget talks are under way, and budget talks at the moment are at a standstill.

"There are a number of pieces of legislation that must be done," Mr. Silver said in an interview yesterday, rattling off other unresolved measures, from energy to campaign finance reform. "I am as optimistic we will achieve something."

This is the first year that Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat straddling the demands of his largely white Democratic colleagues from upstate and his black and Latino colleagues from New York City, has endorsed amending the laws. And he did so after the governor promised change.

"Why would someone expect this would be resolved fast?" asked Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens assemblyman and an early crusader for changing the Rockefeller-era drug laws. "All the players are out. They have positions. They're public on where they stand. In the history of Rockefeller, that's been the biggest part of the battle. That's how you begin negotiations."

Assembly Democrats predicted that discussions would begin soon between key aides to Mr. Silver, Mr. Pataki and the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican. A spokesman said that Mr. Bruno remained concerned about tinkering with the sentencing rules but favored allocating more money for drug treatment.

A spokesman for the governor, Michael McKeon, said yesterday that administration officials were open to negotiations, though not to some of the Assembly provisions. "We do have some concerns, significant concerns, with the bill, particularly its failure to provide a meaningful voice to district attorneys on diversion decisions," Mr. McKeon said. "Nevertheless, we remain willing and interested in working together in good faith. We're always hopeful."

A report released last week by the Legal Action Center, an advocacy group that favors loosening the drug laws, pointed to the stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic bills.

Judges would have sole authority to send 14 times as many drug felons to treatment under the Assembly bill as they would under the governor's, the report concluded. However, as the governor's aides pointed out, the report did not count in its figures those who could be diverted with the prosecutors' consent.

The other vital issue is money. The Assembly proposal includes $55 million for treatment slots in prison. The governor's proposal allocates no treatment dollars, figuring that treatment slots would be paid for through savings in the prison budget. A Senate proposal allocates $30 million for treatment slots controlled by prosecutors.

There are other differences. The Assembly proposes much lower sentences on each class of felony, for instance, while the governor's bill piles on stiff new penalties for marijuana sales — but there is likely to be far greater flexibility on these issues.

In any event, people on all sides of the drug war divide wondered aloud how and when any discussion of the differences might start.

"Everyone is so far apart in terms of their approach to the problem, it's going to take a great deal of effort to bring the parties together," said Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney. Prosecutors across the state are the most powerful backers of the present drug laws. Very few low-level dealers and addicts are sentenced to long prison terms, they contend, and many of those have past felonies. The prosecutors say they are best equipped to decide who should go into treatment, and they have spent the last several months cautioning lawmakers against making drastic changes.

"Do I think it's dead?" Mr. Brown mused aloud. "I don't see any real level of communication at the present time."

One criminal justice official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of influencing the direction of future talks, said that while he was fairly confident a couple of months ago that the drug laws would be amended this year, his confidence waned in the last few weeks. "I don't believe this is being seriously discussed," he said. "I don't see it going anywhere. It needs a spark."

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Terry Gorski and Other Members of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team Are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related To Addiction & Mental Health
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