Pubdate: Sat, 22 May 1999
Source: Times Union (NY)
Copyright: 1999, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Contact:  Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212
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POLL FINDS SUPPORT FOR DRUG LAW REFORM

Most New Yorkers Don'T See Changing Strict Sentencing Laws As Being
Soft On Crime

ALBANY -- By a 2-1 ratio, New Yorkers wouldn't consider a politician
"soft on crime" for voting to reform the state's tough drug-sentencing laws,
according to a poll released this week.

Respondents said they would not be likely to vote against their state
legislator for supporting reducing drug sentences. They also said they
favor  sending drug offenders to treatment programs rather than jail
in the survey  conducted by Zogby International.

The results come when several proposals to reform the state's strict
Rockefeller-era drug laws are floating around the state Capitol and
just days  after the leader of the Assembly said he wouldn't act on
drug sentencing reform  because he feared his members would be labeled
soft on crime.

The poll indicated that could be an unfounded fear.

"It is misguided," said pollster John Zogby of Utica. "Basically, New
Yorkers are saying the war on crime is won. We've built a helluva lot
of prisons. Now, we've got to equivocate between the drug kingpins and
the (small-time) user on the streets."

The state's drug laws, adopted under the late Gov. Nelson A.
Rockefeller,  are among the nation's strictest. For example, someone
selling more than two  ounces of a narcotic or possessing more than
four ounces could be sentenced to  15 years to life.

Critics have blamed the Rockefeller drug laws for the state's
burgeoning prison population, now around 70,000. About 22,000 of those
are drug offenders,  although not all were sentenced under Rockefeller
guidelines.

At least five reform proposals are currently being pushed in the state
Legislature, ranging from ending mandatory minimum sentences for
certain crimes to doubling the drug amounts required to constitute a
crime to allowing appeals-level courts to review sentences of a
relative few drug offenders.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they wouldn't consider anyone
who votes for reducing prison terms soft on drugs, compared with 31
percent who would. The results cut evenly across geographic borders,
with 65 percent of upstate voters -- considered more conservative than
downstate -- saying they wouldn't label a politician soft on drugs for
supporting reform.

Sixty-six percent of Democrats said the same, as did 58 percent of
Republicans and 70 percent of non-enrolled voters. Sixty-six percent
of whites supported that position, as did 64 percent of blacks, 55
percent of Asians and 50 percent of Hispanics.

Asked about voting for a candidate, 51 percent of those surveyed said
they would more likely support someone who voted for giving judges more
discretion on sentencing for drug crimes and for reducing sentences. Just 24
percent said  they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who
supported that view.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-
Manhattan, said the house wouldn't take up sentencing reform because
the Speaker feared his Democratic colleagues in suburban and rural
districts would be labeled soft on crime. Silver wasn't available
Friday and a spokesman declined further comment.

Zogby said Silver could be blocking action -- in opposition to many of
his urban colleagues who want reform -- to either keep Gov. George Pataki
from getting credit for changing the laws or to use it for leverage in
negotiating other criminal justice laws.

Silver has vowed not to agree to any crime bill package that doesn't
include a ban on assault weapons. Pataki has been pushing for strictly
limiting parole  for nonviolent offenders.

The Senate, which tends to support stronger penalties for most crimes,
will study the reform proposals but won't commit to anything because
of a poll, said a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno,
R-Brunswick.

The poll surveyed 700 likely voters statewide and had a margin of
error of 3.8 percentage points.
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MAP posted-by: Derek Rea