Few dispute need for drug law reform
NEW YORK STATE In his State of the State address last week, Gov. David Paterson reiterated his longtime support for reforming the state’s Rockefeller drug laws, saying, “I cannot think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws.”
Advocacy groups that support revamping the Rockefeller drug laws were encouraged by Paterson’s remarks but also worried that his final proposals wouldn’t go far enough.
“We’re hopeful about getting reform,” said Gabriel Sayegh, a policy director with the New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance. “This is not just about the Rockefeller drug laws but about changing the way New York approaches drug policy. The Rockefeller drug laws are a set of bad policies.”
Adopted in 1973 and 1974, the Rockefeller drug laws set mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses. Critics say they are too harsh and have filled the state’s prisons with non-violent addicts who would be better served by drug treatment.
The Drug Policy Alliance would like the state to approach drugs from a public health perspective and focus on expanding treatment options for non-violent offenders, Sayegh said. The group would also like sentencing discretion restored to trial judges in all drug cases and the abolishment of mandatory minimum prison sentences. “We need a lot more sentencing reform,” he said. “There are people doing 8 to 20 years on first-time drug offenses. These sentences are ludicrous.”
In addition, people already serving harsh sentences should be re-sentenced “under a system that is more equitable,” Sayegh said. “I’m not suggesting that everybody should be let out of prison, but most of the people who have been sentenced [under the Rockefeller drug laws] have drug problems. Why are those folks sitting in prison?”
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy, who serves as chair of the board of directors for the New York State District Attorneys Association, said the group agrees that reform is needed but that it doesn’t support an outright repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws.
Rather, the group would like to see a methodical approach, where the Sentencing Commission assesses the sentence for each drug crime and determines whether it is appropriate when compared with other drug crimes and other types of crime, such as burglary. “We want a really measured, meaningful approach,” he said.
One of the New York State District Attorneys Association’s main concerns is that Paterson’s proposed budget eliminates funding — about $4 million — for the Road to Recovery program, a drug treatment court established in 2004 that provides an alternative to incarceration. Today, there are Road to Recovery programs in every county; the District Attorneys Association believes the program has been successful and that meaningful drug reform cannot exist without expanded treatment for addicts.
“The alternative is to put addicts back in jail, and that costs money,” Murphy said. “We should not be filling our jails with addicts. Our association is very actively trying to fill beds in rehab centers. . . . We need more funding for drug treatment courts and alternatives to incarceration.”
In Saratoga County, 63 people have graduated from the Road to Recovery program; 86 percent of graduates are gainfully employed, and 82 percent have not been rearrested. In contrast, only about 30 percent of the addicts who are sent to prison are not rearrested, Murphy said.
reform report due
Paterson has said he will wait for a report, due at the end of this month, from the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform before determining how to proceed with Rockefeller drug law reform.
The Commission on Sentencing Reform was established in 2007 by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and charged with revamping the state’s sentencing structure; a review of the Rockefeller drug laws is part of that process. The commission’s work represents the first time in more than 40 years that the state’s sentencing laws have undergone a comprehensive review, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Sayegh said true reform will not come from the Commission on Sentencing Reform. “We don’t expect anything good to come out of the commission report,” he said. “The commission has dodged this issue.” But he said that Paterson’s commitment to reform — as a state senator from Harlem, Paterson was a strong advocate for change — and the Democratic takeover of the Senate make him optimistic.
Murphy said he believes Paterson will take the right approach. “I don’t think he’ll do anything too quickly,” he said. “I’m glad he’s looking to the Sentencing Commission.”
In 2004, the state softened some of the Rockefeller drug laws, but advocates for reform were unsatisfied with the changes. Under the new law, life sentences required for the highest level of drug crimes, Class A1, were cut to 8 to 20 years. The new law also doubled the weight of drugs an offender must be convicted of possessing to merit certain prison sentences.
Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, said she isn’t sure Paterson will be able to bring “real reform” to the state’s drug laws. “We’d like to scratch the drug laws and start all over,” she said. “We’d like to see sentencing discretion rest with judges, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Green predicted that there would be some modification to sentences but not the type of sweeping changes that she supports. “There’s a lot of reluctance to go too far,” she said. “Something really dramatic has to happen to make reform a reality.”
focus on fairness
In late 2007, the Sentencing Commission released preliminary recommendations calling for a more simplified and streamlined system focused on public safety, consistency and fairness. Recommendations included:
Abandoning New York’s indeterminate sentencing system and creating new determinate sentences for more than 200 non-violent felonies.
Modifying New York’s sentencing statutes to expressly permit a court to sentence certain non-violent, drug-addicted felony offenders to community-based treatment in lieu of state prison when the judge, prosecutor and defendant all agree that this is a just outcome.
Examining the broader use of graduated sanctions — such as curfews, home confinement, electronic monitoring and re-entry courts — to end the revolving door of incarceration for certain offenders under parole supervision who violate one or more conditions of parole but commit no new crime.