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Rockefeller Drug Laws Revisions Embrace The Status Quo

Legislation passed in Albany yesterday reduces the most severe mandatory sentences for drug offenses, but the New York Civil Liberties Union contends that it leaves in place a sentencing scheme that is inherently unfair and unjust. Even with the proposed revisions, New York will have the harshest drug-sentencing laws in the country.

“Absent structural changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws – which requires restoring to judges the authority to order treatment as an alternative to sentencing – we will not have meaningful reform,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s Executive Director.

The legislation, which Governor Pataki says he will sign, reduces a sentence of 15 years to life for persons charged with A-1 or A-2 felonies and permits those serving time for these offenses to apply for a reduced sentence. However, 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.

“The concern is that a small first step will be characterized as meaningful reform; that the legislation will give political cover to apologists for the status quo,” said Robert Perry, the NYCLU’s Legislative Director. The fight for real reform begins on the first day of the 2005 legislative session.”

What’s more, the new law will do little or nothing to reform the harsh sentences imposed on B felons, those charged with lesser drug offenses. For example, an individual who is caught with a gram of a controlled substance, but has a prior offense for illegal use of food stamps, faces 3 ½ to 12 years in prison. The majority of drug offenders serving time in New York prisons are non-violent B felons.

Perhaps most significant, the new law will leave in place an inherently unjust sentencing procedure, which operates in manner that gives prosecutors authority to charge and sentence. A judge who believes justice – and the public interest – would be best served by ordering the defendant to treatment and rehabilitation rather than prison has no authority to do so.

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