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
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
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