Senate Republican leaders weighed in
today on the debate over drug offenders with a $20 million proposal to
expand treatment programs for nonviolent drug felons.
The measure, announced by the Senate majority leader, Joseph L.
Bruno, at a news conference this afternoon, would allow prosecutors to
send drug offenders with substance abuse problems to treatment instead
of to prison. The money would cover an 18- to 24-month treatment program
for about 800 felons a year and would finance the creation of additional
treatment slots in the state prison system, job training for
incarcerated drug offenders and treatment options after prison.
The Senate proposal does not directly address the efforts by the
governor and the Democratic leadership of the Assembly to ease the
state's stringent mandatory drug-sentencing laws. Mr. Bruno said today
that he was reviewing the proposals, but would not talk about them.
The Senate proposal says nothing about the range of mandatory
sentences, nor about whether judicial discretion ought to be expanded
— the two most contentious issues in drug law reform, both of them
vigorously opposed by prosecutors. Instead it focuses strictly on
expanding treatment for criminals who are, as Mr. Bruno put it,
"alcoholics and people who are drug-afflicted."
Under the state's Rockefeller-era drug laws, judges must abide by a
range of minimum and maximum prison terms, based on the weight of the
drugs seized on the defendants and their prior felony records. After
years of public pressure to soften those laws, Democrats and Republicans
seem poised to make some changes this year, though differences among
The governor's bill would reduce some of the mandatory minimum
sentences and offer judges slightly more discretion over sentencing. The
Assembly's proposal would provide more judicial discretion and would
lower mandatory minimum sentences even further. The Assembly also seeks
to expand treatment places by using savings from the decline in the
prison population; it proposes to use 75 percent of an estimated $160
million in annual savings to develop 2,000 treatment slots.