Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jun 2002
Source: Daily Gazette (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The Gazette Newspapers
Author: Joel Stashenko, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


ALBANY - Republican Gov. George Pataki and the Democrat-dominated state 
Assembly have publicly laid out their bargaining positions on easing the 
state's mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders, and 
despite their declarations of eagerness to compromise they are not close to 
making a deal.

The fundamental differences separating the two sides have not been bridged 
since Pataki first expressed interest soon after his election as governor 
in softening the laws which carry former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's name.

Pataki wants prosecutors throughout the state to retain a significant role 
in deciding which offenders become eligible for drug treatment and, if 
those criminals complete therapy, avoid prison. The Assembly says the 
governor's insistence on a meaningful role for local district attorneys or 
their representatives would mean the bulk of offenders who should be 
"diverted" to treatment would still end up behind bars.

While both sides insist that changing the drug laws is at or near the top 
of their list of priorities, they entered the probable next-to-last week of 
the 2002 regular session of the state Legislature Monday without a deal, 
nor with any seeming momentum toward reaching one.

"Our biggest fear . . . is that we spend another year in trading concepts," 
said state Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat who chairs his 
chamber's corrections committee.

In that regard, both sides have advanced either some new ideas or agreed to 
accept those from their rival they have previously rejected.

The Assembly, for instance, favors training about addiction for all judges 
who would be in a position to hear drug cases. The idea is that they would 
better be able to recognize offenders who can succeed in treatment and 
those better suited for prison.

Pataki proposed that the criminal records of drug offenders successfully 
completing treatment be expunged.

But this is largely tinkering around the edges.

Past the unresolved philosophical differences at the heart of the dispute, 
there are also political concerns underlying the drug law debate. Those are 
amplified in a year like 2002, when the governor is running for re-election 
and all members of the state Legislature also face the electorate.

No one in Albany wants to look "soft" on criminals, least of all Pataki. He 
has tried to build an image among New York voters as a tough-on-crime 
governor. Any easing of the drug laws is sure to cost him some support 
among conservatives and prosecutors, but he wants to limit those potential 
opponents to hard-liners.

Pataki has also been trying to curry favor among black and Hispanic 
constituents. Minorities make up the vast majority of offenders facing long 
sentences under mandatory drug statutes, and the Rockefeller drug laws are 
unpopular in minority communities.

On the other hand, Democrats could be seen as trying to wound Pataki at the 
November polls in the Democrats' traditional constituencies by denying him 
a deal on drug law reform.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, dismissed the 
suggestion that political calculations are involved in the Rockefeller drug 
law debate.

"This is not about elections," he said. "This is about people."

Likewise, Pataki's criminal justice coordinator Chauncey Parker, has been 
reaching out to prison rights groups, drug law reform advocates and others 
whose opinions have not before been sounded out by the administration about 
changes in the drug statutes. "It is the top priority of the governor to 
get this done," Parker said. "When I started this job four months ago he 
told me to go speak to all the people who were involved. He said there were 
good, passionate people on all sides of the issue. We are going all out, a 
full-court press to accomplish meaningful reform."

But the fact that both the Assembly and Pataki made a symbolic laying out 
of the cards of where they stand on reform does not bode well for a 
negotiated settlement this year.

Albany does not resolve its most intractable differences that way.

On the tough issues, the governor and the chief leaders of the state 
Legislature retire to behind closed doors - usually Pataki's office on the 
second floor of the state Capitol - and they deal in secret. They managed 
for weeks to keep secret a multibillion-dollar health care financing bill 
they were negotiating in this fashion in late 2001 and early 2002, to only 
cite the latest example of how they prefer to do work.

Once a deal is make, legislative leaders tell their majorities and 
reporters about the agreements and lawmakers ratify them on the floor of 
each legislative chamber to tie up the loose legal ends.

So far, the urgency to start this ball rolling on drug law reform has not 
been evident in Albany.
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