The deal reached in principle late last night between Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders could be an important step toward dismantling New York State’s draconian drug laws, said the leadership of the New York Civil Liberties Union. But what has been outlined so far is only an agreement in principle – not law – and it does not fully repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Substance abuse is a public health issue,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “For 36 years, New York State has been locking up people who suffer from addiction and mental illness – but that didn’t make us safer, remove drugs from the streets or serve the interests of our communities. Letting go of this backwards, ineffective approach and looking toward new ways to promote public health and public safety is an important step in the right direction, but it is just that – a step.”

The agreement appears to embrace – for the first time and in a meaningful way – two important principles of reform: It includes a significant reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and it includes a significant restoration of the ability for judges to send drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail.

“The intention of this agreement is a fundamental shift of public policy on drug abuse, away from mandatory incarceration and toward a public health approach,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “That said, the proposal leaves in place some significant elements of the Rockefeller scheme. Extremely harsh sentences still exist. And there is still a mandatory minimum sentence for some low-level, nonviolent repeat offenders – the very people who may need treatment and rehabilitation the most.”

Though there appears to be a conceptual agreement on many Rockefeller issues, the details are yet to be drafted. Still to be resolved is the definition of substance abuse and dependency. Also under negotiation are the procedures by which eligibility for treatment is determined. These details are significant because the wrong result could undermine the whole effort.

“While we’re hopeful about the direction our state is heading in terms of drug laws, this is a complex issue and draft legislation has not been made public,” Lieberman said. “And most importantly, the question of implementation remains. New York appears to be poised to embrace a public health approach, but the devil is in the details and we don’t know the details yet.”

Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Though intended to target drug kingpins, most trapped by the laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many of the thousands of New Yorkers in prison suffer from substance abuse problems or issues related to homelessness, mental illness or unemployment.

For decades, the NYCLU, criminal justice advocates and medical experts have fought to untie the hands of judges and allow addiction to be treated as a public health matter. As noted in the New York State Sentencing Commission’s recent report, sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison is ineffective and counterproductive, and has resulted in unconscionable racial disparities: Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 90 percent of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies, though most people using illegal drugs are white.