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.
On the economic side, New York, like most states, is grappling with a huge budget deficit and a deteriorating financial picture, and years of research and experience have shown that it costs far less to give a nonviolent drug offender treatment than to keep him locked in prison.
As a cost-saving move, Paterson has proposed closing four minimum-security prisons as the prison population has declined, and repealing the Rockefeller drug laws is likely to lead to even fewer inmates.
Advocates for changes in drug law called Friday's announcement the culmination of years of work, including lobbying and public demonstrations. "We've been waiting 36 years for this," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was in Albany for the announcement.
For some, the change comes late.
Anthony Papa was 26 years old in 1985 when he tried to make $500 by carrying an envelope with 4 1/2 ounces of cocaine. He was caught in a sting operation and recalls the judge at his trial telling him that he should get probation because it was his first offense. But the judge was bound by the Rockefeller drug laws and sentenced Papa to 15 years in prison.
"The judge said he was handcuffed because of the law," Papa said in a telephone interview. Papa, who became an artist and advocate for changes in drug laws, was released early in 1997 by Pataki after 12 years in Sing-Sing prison.
"I never saw a kingpin in prison -- mostly nonviolent first-time offenders," Papa said. "This is why this legislation today is a good bill -- it leans more on treatment than incarceration."
He added: "It's amazing to think about all those years I fought for change, and we have meaningful reform today."