Pubdate: Wed, 28 April 1999
Source: Times Union (NY)
Copyright: 1999, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Contact:  Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212
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Author: Lara Jakes and John Caher, Capitol Bureau

PATAKI OFFERS DRUG LAW REFORM

Albany -- Governor's proposed revision of the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws
would give trial judges more power in exchange for elimination of parole

The harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws would undergo their first major revision in
26 years under a soon-to-be-unveiled Pataki administration proposal that
links sentencing reform with the elimination of parole.

Gov. George Pataki, in a crime bill to be released next week, will propose
easing some portions of the controversial drug statutes in exchange for what
is called "determinate sentencing,'' according to Criminal Justice
Commissioner Katherine Lapp.

The governor's legislative package will combine Rockefeller Drug Law reform
proposals advanced by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Sen. Dale Volker with
the goal of giving appellate judges the leeway to trim harsh sentences,
while providing prosecutors with a powerful new tool to nail drug kingpins.

However, in return, Pataki will insist the Legislature overhaul the state's
sentencing statutes by setting specific prison terms for specific felonies.
The wide-ranging crime bill would also give prosecutors the right to appeal
bail amounts they believe were set too low by a judge.

"It will reflect the governor's philosophy, which is 'tough but smart on
crime,' '' Lapp said in an interview Tuesday. "This builds on things that he
did in his first term, and in the context of determinate sentencing, this
would be the appropriate time to start considering any appropriate changes
to the Rockefeller Drug Laws.''

The Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted in 1973, mandate minimum prison sentences
of 15-years-to-life for suspects convicted of possessing four ounces, or
selling two ounces, of a narcotic. Critics say the statutes, the toughest
drug laws in America, have done little except fill New York prisons with
nonviolent drug offenders.

Advocates have been trying to repeal, or at least reform, the Rockefeller
Drug Laws for years, and many thought 1999 would bring change. A more
diverse chorus than ever has been calling for reform this year, including
conservative and liberal lawmakers, jurists, prisoner's rights advocates,
clergy and even some of the authors of the original piece of legislation.

However, with the governor and legislative leadership still stymied on
budget negotiations, reform advocates were beginning to lose hope. The
about-to-be-released bill suggests that at least some movement is possible
this session.

Under the proposed bill, "mules'' who do nothing but act as drug couriers
and have no prior prison record could have their sentence shortened by a
midlevel appellate court, Lapp said. But kingpins, who hardly ever carry the
drugs and, therefore, usually avoid the brunt of the Rockefeller laws, could
face mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years.

Lapp estimated that about half of the 640 inmates serving sentences for A-1
drug crimes -- the most serious -- are mules. Only nonviolent inmates who
agree to attend treatment programs would be eligible for reduced sentences,
she said.

In exchange, Pataki will ask for legislative approval of his "truth in
sentencing'' plan -- a proposal to minimize the duties of the Parole Board
by setting specific, or determinate, prison terms for all convicted felons.

Under New York's current sentencing scheme, convicts are usually sentenced
to an "indeterminate'' term -- say 5 to 15 years -- with a parole board
deciding when the prisoner should be released. The actual term served might
be anywhere from 5 to 15 years.

Pataki would scrap that system and replace it with one where a felon would
be sentenced to, say, 10 years and would serve 10 years.

Assembly Democrats have consistently opposed the "truth in sentencing''
measure in the past. However, they have generally supported reform of the
Rockefeller Drug Laws, and the two measures may prove to be bargaining
chips.

Meanwhile, the governor's willingness to re-work at least some of the tough
drug laws garnered mixed reactions.

"Praise the Lord!'' whooped Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve,
D-Buffalo. "Mules have been treated very, very badly. Some of the major
dealers have used them to cop a plea for themselves. I hope we can do that,
because it's the right thing to do.''

However, Eve continues to oppose determinate sentencing and indicated he is
not open to a deal.

"To trade one thing for something else that's unjust is not a good trade,''
Eve said.

Eve said any reforms to the Rockefeller laws should be applied retroactively
to convicts already in prison. It was unclear Tuesday if retroactivity would
be part of Pataki's proposal.

Volker spokesman Joseph Maltese said the senator would have to take a close
look at the governor's plan before endorsing it.

"Previously, he viewed Chief Judge Kaye's proposal as somewhat reasonable
and will definitely take a closer look,'' Maltese said. "However, the caveat
is he will not take any chances that would risk public safety.''

But the most ardent of advocates lobbying for reform remain unconvinced the
governor's proposal will be enough. Robert Gangi, executive director of the
Correctional Association of New York, an organization calling for repeal of
the Rockefeller Drug Laws, said Pataki's plans "are at best tinkering around
the edges of the problem.''

Gangi said Pataki's proposal would do nothing to address what advocates view
as the key problem with the drug laws -- the fact that they take sentencing
matters out of the hands of the trial judge. He called on the Assembly to
come up with a "more substantive'' plan.

"We still need someone in a leadership position in Albany to step forward
and propose an approach that represents substantive reform,'' Gangi said.
"Our concern would be that if, through the legislative process, this is
adopted, the political leaders will then claim they have taken care of the
problems with the Rockefeller Drug Laws and move on to something else.''

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