Pubdate: Thu, 29 May 2003
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2003 Newsday Inc.
Author: Joel Stashenko, Associated Press Writer
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


ALBANY, N.Y. -- The differences among negotiators talking about reform of
the Rockefeller drug laws are minimal, and now could be the pivotal moment
for finally making changes, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said

However, he also warned that if the Legislature and Gov. George Pataki fail
to reach agreement in the next few weeks, the whole movement toward
softening the harsh sentencing laws could be set back for years.

"As with many issues in Albany, the sun, the moon and 15 stars have to be in
alignment before there is final resolution," Spitzer said. "This may be the

The Democratic attorney general added, "I have this gut sense that if we
don't do it now, things will slip away."

Spitzer said he was dismayed that reform of the drug laws, which he said he
has been trying to facilitate for more than four years, was not mentioned
more prominently by Pataki and legislative leaders when they listed their
priorities for the remainder of the 2003 regular legislative session.
Legislative leaders have tentatively set June 19 as the last day of the
session, though lawmakers can reconvene at any point during the rest of the

Spitzer said it "would be a shame and perhaps worse, an abrogation of
responsibility on the part of our Legislature and the governor" if they
failed to reach a deal on easing the drug laws.

"We are at the end of the session when there is traditionally a flurry of
activity," Spitzer said. "I have not seen a burst of activity on Rockefeller

The drug statutes were put into place in the mid 1970s at the behest of
former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who said urban areas of the state were being
blighted by heroin abuse. The laws allowed prisoners to be sentenced to up
to 15 years to life in prison for first-time offenses of possessing
relatively small amount of narcotics.

Over the years, critics have said the law has resulted in tens of thousands
of offenders being unfairly sent to state prison for long stretches. Many
could have been given treatment for addictions at far less cost to taxpayers
and returned to society as productive members, they charged.

Spitzer said the sticking points in negotiations are over whether to include
lower-level offenders _ those now getting minimum prison sentences of 8 1/3
years _ in the reform package. He also said a dispute remains over the role
of prosecutors in the decision to divert offenders to drug treatment instead
of prison.

Both of those chief areas of dispute can be resolved, Spitzer said.

There is "near unanimity" on other features of a reform package, Spitzer
said, including a doubling of the weight limits for some possession charges,
diversion of non-violent offenders into treatment and maintaining long
prison terms of drug kingpins or those whose criminal records include

Pataki, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader
Joseph Bruno all insist they favor reform of the laws and think it can still
get done this year.

Pataki said his week he was "hopeful" of a resolution.

"We're not going to roll back the entire drug laws," Pataki said. "That's
not appropriate. But we do want to have a more intelligent approach to those
who are convicted or have been convicted under the old Rockefeller drug
laws. We'll continue to advance ideas and initiatives to try to create a
consensus and reach agreement as to how that should be done."
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