Paterson announces details of drug law reforms
(AP) - New York Gov. David Paterson and legislativeleaders have agreed to ease drug laws that were once among theharshest in the nation and led a movement more than 30 years agotoward mandatory prison terms.
The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisionspushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. NelsonRockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight adrug-related "reign of terror." The strictest provisions wereremoved in 2004.
Critics have long claimed the laws were draconian and crowdedprisons with people who would be better served with treatment. Theplanned changes would eliminate mandatory minimum terms for somelow-level nonviolent drug felonies, cutting the prison populationby thousands.
"In additional to being unjust, these policies areineffective," Paterson said Friday, surrounded by Democraticlawmakers and New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
Three decades have shown the core issue is often addiction, "atreatable illness," with far lower recidivism for those who gettreatment instead of prison, he said.
At the same time, penalties will be toughened for drug kingpinsand dealers. The measure will be part of the state's budgetpackage, he said. Lawmakers are trying to enact it by next week.
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, said itcosts the state $45,000 a year to house offenders and that thechanges are expected to eventually reduce the state's prisonpopulation by 13,000 people, producing huge cost savings.
If the reforms are approved, about 1,500 inmates would beeligible to apply for resentencing but are not assured of shortersentences, Paterson said.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose chamber passed a versionof the legislation 98-46, said more effective residential drugtreatment costs $15,000 or one-third the cost of prison.
"We're establishing a more just, more humane, more effectivepolicy for the state of New York," he said.
The legislation would give judges discretion to sentence certainnonviolent and lower felony offenders - both first-time and repeat- to local jail, probation or a combination. Some could be sent tosix-month military-style shock camp or a prison-run drug-treatmentfacility.
In select cases, judges could approve prejudgment diversiondrug-abuse programs and dismiss charges, said Assemblyman JeffrionAubry, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Assembly Committee onCorrection. Under current law, treatment programs can be ordered asa condition of probation.
Senate Republicans warned that watering down the laws willprotect drug dealers and release criminals into the community. Republicans argued it is unfair to include the changes in drugpolicy in the budget vote. They said it forces lawmakers opposed tothe changes to vote for them with their vote on the budget. Theyalso said it gives political cover for lawmakers going along withtheir leaders' wishes.