Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jun 2002
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2002 Newsday Inc.
Author: Joel Stashenko, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York's district attorneys said Friday they would 
support limited changes to the state's drug-sentencing laws.

In a letter to Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders, the prosecutors 
said there is consensus among their ranks for softening the harshest 
category of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws.

The prosecutors said they also favor extending statewide the availability 
of drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent 
offenders. Diversion to treatment programs are available in the most 
populous counties in the state.

"We have the opportunity to make genuine changes in critical areas right 
now," said the president of the prosecutors' group, Steuben County District 
Attorney John Tunney. "Do not allow proponents of radical overhaul of our 
drug laws to hold these widely supported reforms hostage."

The support of prosecutors is considered important to any drug law reforms 
favored by Pataki and the Republican-controlled state Senate. The Senate 
this week ratified Pataki's plan.

The Democrat-dominated state Assembly wants to make more sweeping changes 
than the governor and Senate do, and Assembly Democrats say prosecutors 
should not be allowed to thwart meaningful reforms by getting veto power 
over which inmates are sent into drug treatment.

Prosecutors said Friday they believe Pataki's plan goes further than it has 
to. But they praised Pataki's criminal justice service coordinator Chauncey 
Parker for soliciting their advice when drafting the governor's plan.

The district attorneys were derisive about many aspects of the Assembly 
plan, saying it would gut all checks and balances in the law and allow most 
drug offenders into treatment rather than prison _ whether they should be 
diverted or not.

The Assembly's approach "seems premised on the notion that, if diversion of 
some drug offenders from prosecution to treatment is a good thing, then 
diversion of all drug offenders must be even better," the district 
attorneys said.

The district attorneys called the screening procedures for diversion to 
treatment advanced by the Assembly "illusory" and predicted they "would 
result in diversion of predatory dealers who are not addicts but 
manipulators seeking only to avoid punishment."

Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said the "district attorneys' strong 
opposition to the Assembly plan based on their belief that it will threaten 
public safety raises real questions as to whether that plan can pass even 
in the Assembly itself."

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for state Assembly Democrats, said drug law 
reform enjoys bipartisan support in the Legislature.

"The district attorneys' position is overstated and not credible and the 
Assembly has advanced a compromise proposal that provides for real reform," 
Carrier said. "We should be having discussions to reach an agreed-upon bill 

Jonathan Gradess, head of the state Defenders Association, said the 
prosecutors are making the "outrageous" suggestion that they must retain 
control over decision-making about who goes into drug treatment because all 
other parties in the courtroom can't be trusted.

"They are impugning the integrity of the judiciary merely to achieve 
continued veto power over plea bargaining," Gradess said of prosecutors.

The prosecutors also argued that judges already have wide discretion over 
sentencing drug offenders in all but the most serious category of the drug 
laws _ the A-1 offenders, who face mandatory sentences of between 15 years 
to life for convictions.

The district attorneys said they favor changing those sentencing laws, but 
they noted that Class A-1 drug convictions are "exceedingly rare." There 
were only 21 such convictions statewide last year, the prosecutors said.

They also noted that while the harshest penalty can be invoked for selling 
as little as two ounces of heroin or cocaine, those amounts of drugs are 
not "small." Two ounces of cocaine, when cut for street sales, will sell 
for over $50,000 and supply 4,000 doses, the prosecutors said.

"The idea that state prison is full of hapless drug addicts is not simply a 
myth, it's a lie," said Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne.

Also Friday, the Bar Association of New York City wrote to Pataki that 
while its position on drug law reform is closer to the Assembly, the 
lawyers' group said the Pataki plan is also "an offer of true reform."

If the differences between Pataki and the Assembly cannot be reconciled, 
the city bar association said the Legislature would improve state drug 
policy by passing either bill.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom