Pubdate: Mon, 19 Mar 2007
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Copyright: 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation


So here's New York, more than two months into a new gubernatorial 
administration in which all was supposed to be quite suddenly 
different. True, Governor Spitzer and the leaders of the Legislature 
can point to lots of progress in prevailing upon what long had been 
government by paralysis. But where is the commitment to reform the 
Rockefeller era drug laws, on the books for coming up on 34 years 
now? Mr. Spitzer was just beginning his campaign for governor, in 
December of 2004, when the collective injustice and futility of those 
laws were last addressed. It was a modest step that ended life 
imprisonment for the most serious drug offenses but ignored the 
plight of all those doing time for less severe drug crimes.

There were 5,657 people sent to prison in New York for nonviolent 
drug offenses in 2004. That number was up to 5,835 the following year 
and 6,039 in 2006, according to a review by the Correctional 
Association of New York. More than half of the drug offenders in 
state prison have been serving sentences based on convictions for 
lower-level offenses -- that is, Class C, D and E -- felonies, which 
involve small amounts of drugs. About 40 percent of those inmates are 
in prison for simple possession of drugs, not selling them.

Many, if not most, of the drug felons serving sentences for selling 
drugs have substance abuse problems that need to be treated, 
according to the Correctional Association. Several studies by the 
national Institute on Drug Abuse have found that those who take part 
in drug treatment programs becomes less inclined to engage in 
criminal behavior as a result.

All of those inmates would be eligible for rehabilitation rather 
incarceration if the Rockefeller laws were repealed outright, an 
admittedly unlikely scenario. About 60 percent of the 6,000 people 
sentenced to prison last year would be eligible for different and 
more effective treatment, though, if a reform plan favored by the 
state Assembly were enacted, according to an analysis by the 
Correctional Association.

The Assembly, of course, has never been the obstacle to more 
reasonable drug laws. For New York to truly be different would 
require the new governor to be far more committed than his 
predecessor was, and for the Senate to embrace the reforms that it 
has resisted in the past.

Mr. Spitzer and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno ought to take 
note, then, of the potential benefits of further drug law reform. 
Assuming, as the Correctional Association does, that judges would 
sentence about 3,600 drug offenders a year to alternative punishment 
and treatment, the savings would be substantial. The Correctional 
Association estimates a savings of about $60,000 a year per offender 
- -- $50,000 in reduced costs to the criminal justice system and 
$10,000 in reduced health care and welfare costs, less crime and more 
tax contributions.

It costs more than $36,000 a year, remember, to keep an inmate in the 
state prison system. Treatment is much less expensive -- between 
$2,700 and $4,500 a year for out-patient treatment, according to the 
Correctional Association, and $17,000 to $21,000 a year for 
residential treatment.

There's more to be done, and a strong incentive to do so.

THE ISSUE: More people are in prison in New York for drug crimes now 
than when the state last addressed the laws of the Rockefeller era.

THE STAKES: The alternatives to incarceration are less expensive and 
more effective.
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