Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jun 2002
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2002 Newsday Inc
Author: Joel Stashenko, Associated Press


ALBANY, N.Y. -- The state Senate came up with a wrinkle Wednesday in the 
long-debated reworking of state drug laws still known by the name of former 
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

The Senate approved a bill favored by its Republican majority that would 
deal only with the harshest categories of the mandatory sentencing laws. 
They are the A-1 and A-2 offenders, and they subject violators to minimum 
sentences of 15 years to life in prison.

The bill would replace the 15-year-to-life penalty with a determinate 
sentence of 10 to 20 years. That would reduce the minimum time offenders 
would spend in prison to 10 years, from 15 years, with further reductions 
possible through merit and good time.

The bill would also reduce penalties for A-2 offenders to between three and 
14 years.

The measure would allow offenders serving 15-year-to-life sentences to 
reapply for re-sentencing under the new guidelines.

"I don't know if this is Rockefeller reform light or what," said Martin 
Connor of Brooklyn, the Senate's Democratic leader.

But Sen. Pedro Espada of the Bronx, a Democrat who has switched his 
allegiance to the Republicans, said small steps toward reforming the drug 
laws are also useful.

"Whether its 100 or 800 or a 1,000 (offenders) at a time, we have to move 
forward," Espada said.

The bill was approved on a party line vote, with 36 Republicans in favor 
and 24 Democrats opposed.

The Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver, quickly 
dismissed the Republican Senate bill.

"This does not resolve the issue," he said Wednesday night. "This is the 
half-a-percent solution that deals with a minuscule amount of the overall 
problem. We are not interested."

The Senate, Assembly and Gov. George Pataki have all favored reducing the 
up-to-life in prison sentence for people caught with relatively small 
amounts of narcotics or cocaine.

"Where we all agree, in the most egregious cases, we can pass a bill right 
away that can result tomorrow in those people who are in jail petitioning 
to get released," said John McArdle, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader 
Joseph Bruno.

Pataki said Wednesday night that softening the A-1 and A-2 penalties "is an 
important step forward that could make a meaningful and immediate 
difference for hundreds of families." The governor said he also still wants 
more comprehensive changes in the drug laws.

Estimates of how many inmates the bill would apply to varied in the Senate 
Wednesday night from less than 100 to as many as 900.

The drug law debate has focused more on the thousands of inmates serving 
less harsh, but still mandatory sentences for drugs. Those sentences often 
carry a minimum of 8 1/3 years in prison, and advocates for changes say 
many of those offenders should be sent to drug treatment centers to kick 
addictions rather than state prisons.

Pataki, a Republican seeking re-election this November, and the Senate 
favor an expansion of treatment opportunities for nonviolent drug 
offenders. The Assembly backs a far more ambitious plan for diverting 
offenders to treatment.

Prosecutors in the state are opposed to the Assembly plan, contending it 
could allow some violent drug offenders to avoid prison by entering 
treatment although they are not addicts.

Julie Kowitz, director of the women in prison project at the state 
Correctional Association, said the Senate's truncated plan is inadequate. 
Besides reductions in sentence length, drug reform must also restore more 
judicial sentencing discretion and provide more money for court-mandated 
drug treatment, she said.

"To simply reduce the sentences for A-1 and A-2 offenders would leave out 
vast numbers of convicted drug felons who deserve some relief from the 
draconian drug laws," she said.
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