Pubdate: 2 Mar 1999
Source: Times Union (NY)
Copyright: 1999, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation


He admits that plan to ban parole for nonviolent felons will face fight in
the Legislature

Gov. George Pataki plans to propose next week a major overhaul of New
York's sentencing laws, with the aim of ensuring that the term imposed by
the judge is the sentence served by the convict.

Pataki said Wednesday at a criminal justice conference that he will ask the
Legislature to effectively eliminate parole for all felons, scrapping the
current sentencing scheme for one embraced by federal authorities more than
a decade ago and partially adopted in New York last year.

The governor is seeking to replace what is known as "indeterminate"
sentencing with "determinate" sentencing.

Now, judges sentence felons to an indeterminate term -- sometimes a term as
broad as 3 years to life -- but a parole board decides when in the time
span prescribed by the judge the inmate is actually released. Pataki would
generally abolish parole as a perk offered in lieu of prison time and
require convicts to serve six-sevenths of their term, after which they
would be under the supervision of parole officials for five years.

Last year, the governor succeeded, after a bruising political fight, in
abolishing parole and mandating fairly specific prison sentences for
violent felons. Now, his focus is on nonviolent offenders.

Pataki, speaking to criminal justice experts gathered at the Desmond hotel,
said that nonviolent offenders are now sentenced on average to a maximum of
54 months, but serve only 27 months before they are released on parole.
Further, he said 40 percent of nonviolent felons return to state prison
within three years of their release.

"This makes no sense, and we must change it," Pataki said.

But Pataki's plan faces an uncertain political future, and a certain battle
in the Legislature.

"It is going to be a fight," he acknowledged.

Although Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a fellow Republican, endorses
the governor's proposal, the Democratic leader of the Assembly, Sheldon
Silver, has expressed grave reservations about following the federal model.

In the mid-1980s, the federal government abolished parole and established
sentencing guidelines that require judges to impose a specific sentence for
a particular crime. The goal, in part, was to ensure uniformity in
sentencing, so two criminals who commit similar crimes are subjected to
similar punishments.

But the downside, critics say, is that mandated uniformity can result in
illogical, formulaic sentencing that fails to take into account a specific
offense and specific offender. As an example, some critics say, a woman who
steals powdered milk to feed her starving baby has committed a
fundamentally different crime than one who steals powdered milk to cut
cocaine. But if a judge lacks discretion to tailor a sentence to a crime,
both women could end up with the same prison term.

Louise Roback, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New
York Civil Liberties Union, said the potential elimination of judicial
discretion is "troubling." But, U.S. Attorney Thomas Maroney, the chief
federal prosecutor in northern New York, said a new sentencing statute
could be written in such a way that it would addresses those concerns.
Federal laws, for instance, allow judges to depart from sentencing mandates
and impose a greater or lesser sentence when warranted by extraordinary

"Determinate sentencing makes a lot of sense," Maroney, a Democrat, said.
"Everybody knows where they stand. If the judge says 78 months, by God,
it's 78 months."

Also at Wednesday's conference, Pataki outlined plans to:

Establish a computerized crime-tracking network to link every police agency
in the state. The initiative will begin next month when the four Capital
Region counties -- Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Saratoga -- are the
first to go online.

Expand the state's DNA database to include all felons. Now, only about 11
percent of convicts are included.

Computerize and centralize mug shot and rap sheet data so police officers
can access such information instantly.

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MAP posted-by: Mike Gogulski