Pubdate: Thu, 20 Dec 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


The mandatory sentencing craze that began in the 1970s was a 
public-policy disaster. It drove up inmate populations and 
corrections costs and forced the states to choose between building 
prisons and building schools or funding medical care for the 
indigent. It filled the prisons to bursting with nonviolent drug 
offenders who would have been more cheaply and more appropriately 
dealt with through treatment. It tied the hands of judges and ruined 
countless young lives by mandating lengthy prison terms in cases 
where leniency was warranted. It undermined confidence in the 
fairness of the justice system by singling out poor and minority 
offenders while largely exempting the white and wealthy.

The Supreme Court recognized the flaws in this system last week when 
it ruled that federal judges were justified in handing out lower 
sentences for drug offenders than were laid out in federal sentencing 
guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission, the independent 
body that sets those guidelines, has called for easing drug-crime 
sentences for some categories of offenders and for doing so 
retroactively. In addition, bills pending in Congress would rewrite 
federal drug statutes, making treatment more readily available and 
sentences fairer and more sensible.

Nowhere is repeal of mandatory-sentencing policies more urgently 
needed than in New York, which sparked an unfortunate national trend 
when it passed its draconian Rockefeller drug laws in the 1970s. 
Local prosecutors tend to love this law because it allows them to 
bypass judges and decide unilaterally who goes to jail and for how long.

But the general public is increasingly skeptical of a system that 
railroads young, first-time offenders straight to prison with no hope 
of treatment or reprieve. In an often-cited 2002 poll by The New York 
Times, for example, 79 percent of respondents favored changing the 
law to give judges control over sentencing. And 83 percent said that 
judges should be allowed to send low-level drug offenders to 
treatment instead of prison.

The State Legislature has tinkered at the margins of these horrific 
laws, but stopped short of restoring judicial discretions. The time 
is clearly right for that crucial next step. The Legislature needs to 
gear up for the change, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who has thus far 
tiptoed around the subject, needs to set the stage when he delivers 
his State of the State message early next month. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake