HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Pataki Proposes Changes To Rockefeller Drug Laws
Pubdate: Thu, 09 May 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Contact:  http://www.nytimes.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/298
Author: James c. McKinley Jr.

PATAKI PROPOSES CHANGES TO ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS

ALBANY, May 8 - As protesters in New York and Albany spoke out against the 
state's harsh penalties for drug crimes today, Gov. George E. Pataki put 
forward yet another proposal for breaking a deadlock with Assembly 
Democrats over reducing sentences for drug offenders.

It is the governor's third attempt in the last year and a half to reach an 
agreement with the Assembly on the issue. The penalties for drug crimes, 
enacted in the 1970's, rankle many black and Latino voters, groups the 
governor has been trying to please as part of his re-election campaign. 
Nine of 10 people serving time for drug offenses are black or Hispanic.

The current laws do not give judges the power to divert people arrested on 
drug charges into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. 
Passed 30 years ago under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the statutes also 
often force judges to hand out long prison terms for addicts who were 
paying for their habits by selling drugs.

The Republican governor and Democratic leaders in the Assembly have been at 
loggerheads about how much leeway judges should have to place addicted 
felons into treatment programs rather than prison. As a practical matter, 
prosecutors now control who qualifies for drug treatment, and they are 
reluctant to give up that power. The Assembly Democrats want to let judges 
decide.

Mr. Pataki's proposal would still let prosecutors determine if a defendant 
deserved to go to a treatment program. But it would allow defendants to 
appeal a decision to a judge, who could overrule the prosecutor, said 
Chauncey G. Parker, the state criminal justice coordinator.

The governor has also proposed a new schedule of sentences for drug crimes 
that reduces prison terms for drug offenders who are not violent and 
removes the possibility of life imprisonment, Mr. Parker said. Mr. Pataki 
would also require judges to determine precisely how much time a convicted 
person should serve, within a specified range, cutting parole boards out of 
the picture.

At the same time, the governor wants to impose a mandatory five-year 
sentence on anyone who carries a gun while committing a drug offense. He 
also wants to increase sentences for people who run drug rings of more than 
three people.

For his part, the governor accused the Legislature today of dragging its 
feet. "The time for political posturing must end," he said. "The time for 
real reform has come."

But the Assembly Democrats say there is less than meets the eye to Mr. 
Pataki's proposal. For starters, only people with one prior felony 
conviction or no criminal record at all would be able to appeal to a judge 
for the chance to receive treatment, and most addicted felons have more 
than one conviction.

In 2000, about 1,600 people imprisoned on drug convictions were first-time 
offenders who could have been treated under the governor's proposal, but 
1,752 others would not have qualified.

Supporters of the Assembly bill said the governor's proposal still did not 
go far enough in giving judges the ability to tailor penalties to 
individuals. "You have to untie the hands of the judges," said Assemblyman 
Keith L. Wright of Harlem, one of the sponsors of the Assembly bill.

Some Democrats also object to the rules Mr. Pataki has proposed for people 
who do receive treatment. Addicts who miss an appointment or relapse to 
drug use during treatment could be tried on the underlying charge 
immediately under the governor's plan, and most do have a relapse at least 
once during treatment, experts say.

The governor's aides released details of his plan on the 29th anniversary 
of the signing of the Rockefeller laws. In Albany, Christian, Jewish and 
Muslim clerics marked the day with calls for softening the penalties. In 
Manhattan, the Rev. Al Sharpton led about 100 protesters in calling for the 
repeal of the laws in front of the governor's offices on Third Avenue.

The latest proposal drew mixed reviews from advocates for changing the 
laws. "When you look at the details, his proposals fall short," said Robert 
Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York.

But Paul N. Samuels, the president of Legal Action Center, said it was the 
first sign the impasse might be broken this year.
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