Albany Takes Step to Repeal ’70s-Era Drug Laws

ALBANY — The State Legislature took pivotal steps on Wednesday toward repealing much of what remains of the state’s 1970s-era drug laws, which have tied judges’ hands and required them to impose mandatory prison terms for many nonviolent drug offenses.

The Assembly approved legislation, 96 to 46, that would restore judges’ discretion in many lower-level drug-possession crimes that are felonies by eliminating laws that require a prosecutor’s consent before judges can send certain felons to drug treatment instead of prison.

In addition, the measure would permit about 2,000 prisoners to apply to have their sentences reduced.

The same bill was introduced on Wednesday in the Senate, where Democratic leaders vowed to quickly take it up. But the task now confronting legislative leaders and Gov. David A. Paterson (external - login to view) is to reconcile the Assembly bill — which is considered the widest-reaching of the proposals under consideration — with the governor’s plan and the bill that Senate Democrats expect to pass after amending the Assembly bill.

Arriving at a proposal that all 32 Senate Democrats can agree on may prove difficult. “I don’t think we have a consensus right now,” said Eric T. Schneiderman (external - login to view) of Manhattan, the lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. “But I think we have a better sense of the questions we need to answer going forward.”

Efforts to change the state’s drug laws have for years prompted one of the most divisive debates in Albany. Bills aimed at broadly overhauling the statutes, known as the Rockefeller drug laws because Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (external - login to view) championed their approval, have routinely passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly only to die in the Senate, which until this year was controlled by Republicans.

With Democrats now in the majority in the Senate and with Mr. Paterson an avowed champion of repealing the laws, supporters see this year as offering the best chance to pass a plan that essentially does away with mandatory sentences for drug crimes.

“I think the stars are aligned,” Sheldon Silver (external - login to view), the speaker of the Assembly, said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “Its time has come.”

Before a three-way compromise can be reached, several elements of the governor’s plan that are not in the Assembly bill need to be addressed. They include requiring drug offenders to plead guilty as a condition of being sent to treatment and to be certified as addicted before they can enter treatment.

Another issue expected to be debated is whether the legislation should allow current prisoners to apply for resentencing.

The Legislature has already eliminated the stiffest provisions of the Rockefeller laws, doing away in 2004 with life sentences for drug crimes and reducing other penalties for the most serious offenses.

But supporters of the Assembly bill believe that their plan is an opportunity to finish what began in 2004 and fix a policy that they say singles out minorities.

“It hasn’t worked,” said Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Democratic assemblyman from Queens who has led efforts in the Assembly to rewrite drug sentencing laws. “It’s a failed policy that we can no longer sustain.”

Those supporting changes said the legislation would give New York an opportunity to catch up after falling behind states that have greatly expanded drug treatment programs as alternatives to prison.

“The general theme is states are making greater efforts to divert people into treatment programs, and they’re starting to use prison not as a first resort but a secondary or last resort,” said Gabriel Sayegh, the director of organizing and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance Network (external - login to view), a national drug law reform group.

“If the Legislature follows through with moving toward a public health approach, New York could potentially go from having some of the worst laws in the country to having some of the best.”

District attorneys have expressed concern that the changes would strip them of an important function as a check against too much judicial discretion.

“We’ve achieved a balance where we’ve preserved public safety and reduced our prison population,” said Michael C. Green, the district attorney of Monroe County, which includes Rochester. “I look at that and say, ‘Why do we want to take this system and make a seismic shift?’ My fear is that you’re going to disturb one of those trends.”

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So as our political elite seek tougher mandatory sentences, restrictions to the judiciary and decreased liberties, just across the boarder they are seeking to correct the exact problem we are seeking to implement.

Is the average Canadian really that stupid?

When a democracy can elect a Prime Minister with only 14% of popular support and more of the population than that uses drugs then drugs should be legal or you don't really have a democracy.

I move that drug laws are kingly dictates and since those can't exist in a democracy we therefore don't have a democracy.
Last edited by Scott Free; Mar 5th, 2009 at 07:58 AM..