N.Y. Governor, Lawmakers Agree to Soften Drug Sentencing Laws

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

NEW YORK, March 27 -- Gov. David A. Paterson (D) and legislative leaders on Friday announced an agreement to roll back the state's strict, 36-year-old drug laws, including eliminating tough mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders.

The "Rockefeller Drug Laws," named after former governor Nelson Rockefeller (R), are among the strictest in the country and for critics have become a symbol of the failure of the "war on drugs," which locked up large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders while having little apparent effect on drug use.

The agreement, announced in the state Capitol, follows a national shift away from criminal penalties to public health and treatment in America's decades-old fight against illegal drug use.

"There's a broader trend picking up steam around the country to roll back the drug war," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group for alternative drug laws. Mandatory sentences, that led to burgeoning prison populations and a spurt of building of new prisons, he said, "happened as a result of the drug war hysteria."

The shift began in the late 1990s as more than a dozen states legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and California voters in 2000 passed a ballot initiative that allowed people convicted of simple drug possession to be sent to treatment instead of jail.

Last year, Massachusetts became the first state in which voters chose to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction, the equivalent of a parking ticket.

The changes in New York, which must be finalized by votes in the State Assembly and Senate, would repeal most mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders and give judges broader discretion over sentencing.

The state plans to use money from the recently enacted federal stimulus package to expand treatment programs. And the changes would allow some among a group of 1,500 prisoners to apply for release, if they are nonviolent and have not been convicted of other crimes.

The changes were strongly opposed by state prosecutors and district attorneys, who argued that they needed mandatory sentences as a tool to get offenders to plead guilty to lesser crimes.

The move in New York has been driven by new political as well as economic dynamics.

On the political side, the shift came last year, first when Paterson was elevated to the governorship after Eliot L. Spitzer (D) resigned amid scandal. Paterson had been a longtime advocate of repealing the laws. In 2002, when he was a state senator, he was arrested at a demonstration against the laws outside the office of then-Gov. George E. Pataki (R).

Then in November, Democrats captured the state Senate for the first time in years. The State Assembly in the past had proposed repealing the drug laws, but the effort was always blocked by Senate Republicans, many of whom represent largely rural, Upstate districts where most of the state's prisons are located.

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