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New York Drug Laws 
A Plan To Roll Back Drug Terms


GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: March 13, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Terry Gorski and Other Members of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team Are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related To Addiction & Mental Health
Gorski - CENAPS, 17900 Dixie Hwy, Homewood, IL 60430, 708-799-5000,, 

Assembly Democratic leaders offered their proposal to loosen New York's stringent drug sentencing laws today, calling for the expansion of treatment options for drug offenders, for a reduction in the range of mandatory minimum sentences and for more discretion for judges to decide which drug felons should be given treatment rather than prison.

The proposal, drafted by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office and shared with the Democratic conference this afternoon, goes considerably further than the legislation Gov. George E. Pataki offered Friday. The new plan lays the groundwork for a battle expected to unfold over the rewriting of New York's Rockefeller-era drug laws. By all accounts, the chances of amending the laws are better this year than ever before, in large part because of Governor Pataki's pledge to do so.

The differences between his proposal and the Assembly's are substantial, and the main sticking point will probably be over the scope of judicial discretion. The governor's bill would allow judges to decide whether some low-level drug offenders, those convicted of C-, D-, and E-level felonies, could receive treatment instead of being imprisoned. The Assembly bill would extend judicial discretion to Class B felons, by far the largest batch of drug criminals.

"We returned discretion to the judges in a significant way, in contrast to what's been proposed by the governor," said Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat who has repeatedly and unsuccessfully introduced legislation to overturn mandatory- sentencing laws. "I think judicial discretion is going to be the heart of the battle."

Less politically fraught is the Assembly's proposal to expand drug treatment options. It would set aside savings from the state's declining prison rolls to create 2,000 new treatment beds. Roughly 9,300 such resident treatment beds exist now, but they are not all for drug offenders. The governor's bill does not specifically set aside money for treatment; his aides have said such financing would come later.

Moreover, the governor's bill seeks to eliminate the parole board's authority over early release and proposes stiffer penalties for marijuana charges; the Assembly said nothing about marijuana, and is unlikely to countenance either of those pieces, Mr. Silver said.

Mr. Pataki's bill includes the most significant reductions for drug felons facing the most serious charges. Those convicted of A-1 felonies, for instance, for the possession of four or more ounces of a controlled substance would see their mandatory sentences reduced to 8 1/2 years to life from a minimum of 15 years to life. The Assembly bill, meanwhile, would raise the threshold for the harshest penalties: possession of eight ounces would result in an A-1 felony charge, and the minimum sentence would be reduced to 5 to 15 years.

Like the governor's bill, the Assembly speaker's proposals for treatment alternatives would apply only to nonviolent felons. In an apparent effort to appeal to moderates, the proposal would also increase penalties for certain kinds of drug felons: those who are dubbed "major drug traffickers" would face stiffer penalties, though it is unclear how they are to be defined. It will take at least a couple of weeks for the proposal to be drafted into a bill.

"It's going to be a smart program in that it will reduce sentences and mandate treatment on the less serious crimes," Mr. Silver said. "It will increase sentences on the most serious crimes."

New York's so-called Rockefeller drug laws, enacted in 1973, largely apply to hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine, and sentencing is based solely on the quantity of drugs and the defendant's felony record. Critics say these laws have crowded prisons with low-level drug dealers and addicts who need treatment. While those critics have pressed for greater judicial discretion over sentencing, the state's prosecutors have vigorously opposed it. The current law gives prosecutors far greater control of cases, allowing them to use the threat of long mandatory sentences to squeeze plea bargains from some prisoners and to force others into drug treatment.

Until this year, the Assembly leadership had not backed substantial drug law changes. Mr. Silver had nary a word to say about the issue publicly, and some upstate Democrats in particular feared that addressing it would put them at risk of being perceived as soft on crime. The political calculations changed when the governor took the first step earlier this year. But the speaker was pressured from within the Assembly as well. Mr. Silver's silence about drug law reform was one of the issues raised in attempts last year to unseat him as speaker. The attempted coup was unsuccessful, thanks in some measure to the support of black lawmakers. Revamping drug laws is one of their chief legislative priorities.

Terry Gorski and Other Members of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team Are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related To Addiction & Mental Health
Gorski - CENAPS, 17900 Dixie Hwy, Homewood, IL 60430, 708-799-5000,,

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