Pubdate: Thu, 25 Oct 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


New York sparked a disastrous national trend during the 1970s with 
laws that often penalized first-time drug felons more severely than 
rapists or murderers. Imitated throughout the country, New York's 
so-called Rockefeller laws drove up the prison population tenfold and 
cost the states a fortune, but did nothing to curb the drug trade. 
Worse still, they tied the hands of judges -- and destroyed countless 
young lives -- by requiring long prison terms in cases where leniency 
and drug treatment were clearly warranted.

New York has made incremental changes to the Rockefeller laws in 
recent years, but has stopped short of restoring judicial discretion. 
Gov. Eliot Spitzer seemed to be pushing in that direction this year 
when he appointed a commission to study the range of state sentencing 

The commission's preliminary report contains many valuable 
recommendations for fixing the sentencing system as a whole. But the 
superficial treatment given the Rockefeller laws has raised fears 
among fair-sentencing advocates that the commission intends to duck 
the issue in its final report, due next spring. That cannot be 
allowed to happen. Voters deserve a thorough airing of this issue and 
a full menu of options for reforming the most draconian drug laws the 
country has yet seen.

The report rightly calls for ending New York's byzantine system of 
"indeterminate sentencing," under which a judge imposes a minimum and 
a maximum sentence and the Parole Board decides when to release an 
offender. It calls for sentencing certain nonviolent offenders to 
community-based treatment instead of prison. It also recommends 
restoring prison-based educational and training programs, which have 
been shown to cut recidivism by giving inmates marketable skills.

Most important, the report calls for the state to establish a 
permanent, independent sentencing commission to advise legislators. 
Already working in several states, such commissions have independence 
and statutory authority. At their best, they help legislatures make 
rational decisions and avoid disastrous policies that have failed 
elsewhere, like New York. 
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