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
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
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
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
"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
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."