Pubdate: Thu, 13 Dec 2001
Source: Post-Star, The (NY)
Copyright: 2001 Glens Falls Newspapers Inc.
Author: Joel Stashenko, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


ALBANY -- While continuing the campaign to ease the harshest of the 
state's drug laws, an advocate for reform said the time is not ripe 
for Gov. George Pataki to make meaningful concessions.

"He's perceived by the public to have responded very well to the 
trade center attacks," Robert Gangi of the state Correctional 
Association said Wednesday. "He's gotten a lot of political capital 
out of that perception. There is less pressure on him to compromise 
on any issue."

Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon called Gangi's comment "the most 
ridiculous thing I've ever read" and said the governor is "committed 
to commonsense reforms" of the drug statutes.

Discussions over easing the mandatory sentencing laws for drug 
offenders have been conducted off and on for most of 2001. McKeon 
said the governor's counsel, James McGuire, made new overtures to the 
Legislature on the subject as recently as late last week.

But spokesmen for all the sides said Wednesday no agreement is imminent.

Gangi said Wednesday he hopes no agreement is struck and that the 
issue is deferred until 2002, when Pataki is expected to seek a third 
term as governor.

If the political capital Pataki has built in the aftermath of the 
World Trade Center attack "erodes," Gangi said the governor would be 
more receptive to drug sentencing changes that result in thousands 
fewer people being sent to state prison.

The intervening months would also bolster the case for reform in a 
state which could lose up to $9 billion in revenues by March 2003 due 
to the Sept. 11 attack, Gangi said. Plans to change the drug laws 
call for thousands of offenders to go into treatment programs rather 
than prisons, which cost up to $30,000 a year to incarcerate each 

"I think the economic argument is potentially a critical factor in 
any negotiations," Gangi said.

McKeon said Pataki wants reform of the drug statutes, but does not 
want to deal with those who want to use the issue for political gain.

"In Albany, it takes three to tango," he said. "We're looking for 
some dance partners."

Gangi's prisoner advocacy group released a compilation Wednesday of 
statements made by judges condemning the current sentencing laws as 
overly harsh and disproportionate to offenders' crimes. The report 
was titled, "Stupid and Irrational and Barbarous: New York judges 
speak against the Rockefeller Drug Laws."

The laws were adopted in 1973 and 1974 at the behest of former Gov. 
Nelson Rockefeller, who argued that drugs were wiping out inner-city 
neighborhoods around the state. The most extreme of the laws allow 
for prison sentences of up to life for first offenders caught with 
relatively small amounts of heroin or cocaine.

More typically, critics say mandatory sentencing laws have caused 
thousands of mainly minority, nonviolent drug abusers to be 
imprisoned for several years when they belong in treatment centers.

Opposition to easing the drug laws has been loudest from district 
attorneys in the state. They argue that only a few hundred inmates 
have been sent to prison for the maximum terms under the statutes and 
that the inmates serving the shorter mandatory sentences have 
exhibited violence in their lives, even if they haven't been 
convicted of violent offenses.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said 
prosecutors in 83 percent of the state now have available to them 
drug treatment as a sentencing option.

"We're really not missing people who are treatment-eligible and 
treatment-appropriate and sending them to jail," Fitzpatrick said 

He also predicted that the economic argument in favor of reforming 
the drug laws will not be persuasive.

"If you emasculate the laws tomorrow, the only dangerous financial 
impact you're going to have is from the dramatic increase in crime," 
he said.

Meanwhile Wednesday, a one-week advertisement campaign in the New 
York City area against the drug laws was entering its final two days. 
The campaign was sponsored by the Latino Health and Justice Coalition 
and endorsed by prominent Latino politicians in New York City.

The campaign urges Pataki, a Republican, to adopt the drug reform 
plan put forward by the Democrat-dominated state Assembly. Pataki has 
proposed two reform plans in recent years, but critics say each gave 
prosecutors too much power to veto treatment for offenders and not 
enough sentencing discretion to judges.
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