By Robert Perry and Donna Lieberman — It’s the same old Albany story. A major legislative issue is reduced to a contest among three men. When the advocates manage to force the debate into the open, private back-room negotiations ensue. And then, in an end-run around the state constitution, a deal is rushed to a vote and rubber-stamped by the legislature. The story this time is about New York’s notoriously unjust drug laws. As it has done for 30 years, the Republican leadership was stonewalling reform. But then in an upset a reformer won the November election for Albany County district attorney. Three senate Republicans also lost their seats, with the voters demanding change in the rules that make Albany operate like the old Soviet Politburo. Advantage to the reformers. So what happened? The assembly Speaker quietly struck a deal that allowed the Republicans to get reform off the table with the absolute minimum concession to change. The bill that was passed reduces the most severe mandatory sentences for drug offenses, but the sentencing “grid” for these offenses is still harsh and inflexible. Prosecutors can demand a sentence of ten years for an addict with no criminal record who is induced by a dealer to deliver four ounces of a drug to a buyer. A judge who believes justice – and the public interest – would be best served by ordering the defendant to treatment rather than prison cannot issue that order. What’s more, the new law will do little to reduce the excessive sentences imposed on low-level nonviolent drug offenders – the majority of those serving time in New York prisons for drug crimes. Perhaps most disheartening was the spectacle of a quick political fix offered as the remedy to a great wrong. Under New York’s drug laws, the state has perpetrated injustice on a massive scale. The cost – measured in wasted lives or wasted dollars -- has been astronomical. But the legislative response was the politics of minimalism. So, New York’s drug laws remain the harshest in the country. Chauncey Parker, the governor’s criminal justice coordinator, explains that drug offenders must put away for a long time because on average they have many prior arrests – but arrests are based on unproven allegations. And justice is not dispensed based on averages, but rather on the facts before the court. The problem is, under the state’s drug-sentencing scheme the judge is a bystander in the courtroom. The facts don’t much matter. New York’s Rockefeller drug laws are not merely harsh. They are irrational: they do little to deter drug use or to protect the public safety. They are enforced in a blatantly racist manner. The fact is, these laws operate as a jobs program for the burgeoning upstate prison industry -- and as a perverse response to the problem of addiction, psychiatric illness and unemployment in downstate urban centers. There is a serious downside to the “small steps” approach to drug reform endorsed by the legislature last week. It gives political cover to apologists for the status quo. Robert Perry is legislative director with the New York Civil Liberties Union; Donna Lieberman is the organization’s executive director.

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