Nearly two months after he pledged
to loosen the state's strict mandatory sentencing laws for drug
offenders, Gov. George E. Pataki released a detailed bill yesterday that
would reduce prison sentences in some instances but would also add new
penalties for marijuana convictions. He also wants to reduce the state
parole board's authority to grant early release from prison.
Mr. Pataki, a Republican, has long campaigned against parole in
general. He has ended parole for those convicted of repeated violent
felonies. He has pushed to end parole for all felons, though that has
failed to pass the Assembly.
Now, as part of his package of proposed drug laws, he is calling for
what is known as determinate, or definite, sentences for drug offenders.
Under the proposal, an inmate would have to serve a fixed minimum
sentence, as ordered by a judge. Currently, the state parole board
decides when an inmate can be released under parole supervision.
"It's a continuation of the governor's belief in determinate
sentencing," said Caroline Quartararo, a spokeswoman for the State
Division of Criminal Justice Services. "We're putting an end to the
parole board's discretionary power over sentencing and putting that
decision-making back into the hands of the judges, where it
The governor's bill also loosens some of the most restrictive
sentencing laws: it significantly reduces minimum sentences for the most
serious nonviolent drug offenses, for instance, and provides for
treatment instead of or in addition to prison time for some drug felons.
But even as some of Mr. Pataki's most vehement critics praised those
aspects of the bill yesterday, the fine print of his proposal drew alarm
as well. Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional
Association of New York, the group leading the charge to overturn what
are known as the Rockefeller laws, said he worried about whether these
measures, if they became law, would ultimately place even more low-level
dealers behind bars, and for longer.
"In fact it may have very, very little effect, or it may
actually increase the number of people being sent to state prison,"
Mr. Gangi said. "The governor took a few steps politically in the
direction of drug law reform, but our concern is that he's slipping back
from that posture."
New York's Rockefeller-era laws largely apply to hard drugs, like
heroin and cocaine, and sentencing is based on the quantity of drugs
along with the defendant's past felony record. Judges have no discretion
over whether a convicted drug offender should be imprisoned, and they
cannot take into account whether any violence was committed. Critics say
these laws have crowded prisons with low-level drug dealers and addicts
who need treatment. For several years, the critics have pressed for
greater judicial discretion over sentencing — a move vigorously
contested by the state's prosecutors and their allies in Albany.
The governor's proposal would reduce penalties for the most serious
nonviolent drug offenders: those convicted of class A felonies, now
punishable by a minimum sentence of 15 years to life, for instance,
would have their sentences reduced to a minimum of 8 1/3 years to
Under his proposal, those who are arrested repeatedly on charges of
marijuana sales and possession would face felony charges, instead of
misdemeanor charges as they do now. His bill would also stiffen
penalties for possession and sale of large quantities of marijuana, and
impose tougher sentences on those arrested on drug charges in parks.
How the governor's bill will fare with the Democrats in the Assembly
remains unclear. Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for the Assembly
speaker, Sheldon Silver, said the Democratic conference would take up
the matter next week when the legislative session resumes.