Pubdate: Sun, 08 Feb 2009
Source: Star-Gazette (NY)
Copyright: 2009sStar-Gazette
Author: Cara Matthews
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


It Says Current Sentencing, Drug Treatment Laws Are 

ALBANY - New York should expand access to drug treatment and
alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent felony offenders,
establish a system of  largely fixed prison terms, and adopt a
graduated system for parole violations, according to a state  report
released last week.

The Commission on Sentencing Reform released its recommendations
after about 18 months of studying sentencing laws, which have not
undergone a thorough revision in more than 40 years. The state has an
"incredibly complex sentencing structure capable of  confounding even
the most experienced practitioners," the report said.

"The commission's recommendations, if followed, will  bring clarity to
our patchwork quilt of accumulated  sentencing reforms, improve
(prisoner) reentry  outcomes, and support more rational uses of our
prisons  and our parole systems," Jeremy Travis, president of  John
Jay College of Criminal Justice, said in a  statement.

The Drug Policy Alliance blasted the commission's  report, saying it
failed to propose any "substantive"  changes to the Rockefeller-era
drug laws. The  alliance's mission is to "reduce the harms of both
drug  misuse and drug prohibition." Assembly Speaker Sheldon  Silver,
D-Manhattan, also criticized the report.

The state should adopt a plan to provide the necessary  treatment beds
and community-based resources and adopt  a uniform statewide drug-
diversion model, the panel  recommended. New York has successful
programs, such as  prison diversion and the drug court system, but
they  are not always available. Many nonviolent drug-addicted 
offenders, particularly persons of color, don't have  access to these
alternatives. About 3,000 people a year  would meet the criteria for
diversion, the report said.

The commission didn't reach a unanimous decision on any  one
drug-reform proposal, but most members agreed the  best option would
be a judicial-diversion model. It  would give judges discretion to
send first- and  second-time nonviolent drug-addicted felony offenders
 to treatment without consent from the district  attorney.

Eighty-nine percent of individuals serving drug  sentences in New York
are black and Hispanic, so people  of color would benefit from giving
judges discretion to  send offenders to treatment, said Denise
O'Donnell,  chairwoman of the commission and Gov. David Paterson's 
deputy secretary for public safety.

The commission also found that the likelihood of a  prison sentence
for nonviolent drug offenders varied  greatly in different counties.

The governor's office is working on legislation in  response to the
commission's recommendations, O'Donnell  said. Any proposal from
Paterson would have to be  approved by the Legislature before taking

Monroe County District Attorney Michael Green, a  commission member,
said a prosecutor should have to  give consent too in cases of
judicial diversion for  first- and second-time felony offenders.

"I feel that those decisions are very difficult  decisions, and I
think they impact on public safety,"  he said.

Commissioners acknowledged that an expanded system  would be expensive
at a time when the state faces an  economic crisis. They did not
calculate an estimate.

Nearly 14,000 people are in state prison on drug  offenses, about 22
percent of the total prison  population, according to the Drug Policy
Alliance. The  group has criticized the Rockefeller-era drug laws for 
carrying prison terms it believes are too severe for  nonviolent
offenders, and it doesn't think changes to  the law in 2004 and 2005
went far enough.

"True overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws requires  the restoration
of judicial discretion in all drug  cases, the expansion of
alternative-to-incarceration  programs in the length of sentences for
all drug  offenses, and retroactive sentencing relief for all 
prisoners currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller  Drug Laws,"
Gabriel Sayegh of the alliance said in a  statement.

Silver said in a letter to the commission that state  drug laws "have
failed to combat drug abuse or  effectively impact the incidence of
violent crime  across New York state." Instead, he said, they have 
imprisoned tens of thousands of low-level nonviolent  offenders, most
of whom are black and Hispanic.

New York should restore the discretion of judges not to mandate a
prison term when they believe it would be inappropriate, Silver
wrote. The state should eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for
low-level nonviolent offenders, and while district attorneys should
continue to play a key role in the process, they should not be  able
to veto a judge's discretion on offenders, he said.

The 11-member commission also recommended:

* Adopting a largely "determinate," or fixed, sentencing system to
promote uniformity and fairness. The current system uses a hybrid of
determinate and  "indeterminate" sentences, which impose a minimum and
 maximum term and the Parole Board decides the release date.

* Using a system of graduated responses, such as curfews and
electronic monitoring, along with risk assessment to identify
parolees who pose the greatest risk to public safety.

* Expanding the effective and cost-efficient "shock incarceration"
and "merit time" initiatives, which reduce recidivism and reserve
prison space for the most dangerous offenders. Shock incarceration
involves a rigorous regiment of physical activity, discipline and 
drug treatment in a military-like program.

* Improving the rights of crime victims and making it easier for
victims, judges and others to quickly learn the rights and benefits
that may be available. Expanding victims' rights training for
prosecutors and judges, and passing new laws to make it easier for 
victims to collect restitution.

* Establishing a permanent sentencing commission.
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