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NY Gov Calls for Drug Law Reform 01-03-01

By LYNN BREZOSKY  The Associated Press)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Gov. George Pataki on Wednesday called for the easing of New York's tough Rockefeller drug laws, which were enacted in the 1970s and have contributed to a surge in the number of people behind bars.

The laws, enacted under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, are among the harshest in the nation and can bring mandatory life sentences for possession of even relatively small amounts of narcotics.

``However well-intentioned, key aspects of those laws are out of step with both the times and the complexities of drug addiction,'' the Republican governor said in his seventh annual State of the State address.

Pataki offered no details about how to ease the drug laws except that he wants to do so dramatically.

The 1973 Rockefeller drug laws were enacted as a get-tough approach to the state's burgeoning drug problem. A person found guilty of a single four-ounce sale of a controlled substance can face a minimum prison sentence of 15 years to life - the same penalty as someone convicted of second-degree murder in New York.

There are currently more than 21,000 prisoners serving time for drug-related offenses out of the state's 70,000 inmates, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. About 600 of those inmates are serving 15-year-to-life sentences under the most severe of the Rockefeller laws.

In recent years, the laws have come under increasing attack from such figures as White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

Some studies have noted a disproportionate number of minorities locked up for a decade or more for nonviolent drug offenses. Opponents of the laws say they tear minority families apart.

A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group, said the state could trim $96 million, or 4 percent, from its $2.3 billion prison budget and improve public safety if it eliminated ``unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive imprisonment.''

In 1999, Pataki proposed some minor changes that would have affected an estimated 250 inmates. His proposal died in the Legislature.

Among those lobbying against the laws Wednesday at the state Capitol was retired New York City Detective Frank Serpico, whose exposure of police corruption was dramatized in the Al Pacino movie ``Serpico.'' Serpico said the drug laws have only served to increase corruption within the NYPD.

``If the governor means what he's saying today about serious reform, it is about time,'' Serpico said. ``From my experience, it would alleviate some temptation for officers.''

On the Net: http://   (AP-NY-01-03-01 1744EST)


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