Revisions to New York Rockefeller Drug Laws Embrace the Status Quo

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
December 8, 2004 12:00 am

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Changes Represent Reform in Name Only, Civil Liberties Group Charges

NEW YORK–The New York Civil Liberties Union today charged that legislation passed in Albany, while reducing the most severe mandatory sentences for drug offenses, leaves in place a sentencing scheme that is inherently unfair and unjust. Even with the proposed revisions, New York still has the harshest drug-sentencing laws in the country.

“Absent structural changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws – which requires restoring to judges the authority to order treatment as an alternative to sentencing – we will not have meaningful reform,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s Executive Director.

The legislation, which Governor George Pataki says he will sign, reduces the current sentence of 15-years-to-life for persons charged with severe drug felonies and permits those serving time for these offenses to apply for a reduced sentence. However, the NYCLU said that the sentencing “grid” for these offenses is still harsh and inflexible.

The new law will leave in place a sentencing procedure that gives prosecutors authority to charge and sentence. Prosecutors can demand a sentence of ten years for an addict with no criminal record who is induced by a dealer to deliver four ounces of a drug to a buyer. A judge who believes justice — and the public interest — would be best served by ordering the defendant to treatment rather than prison is prevented from doing so.

“The concern is that a small first step will be characterized as meaningful reform; that the legislation will give political cover to apologists for the status quo,” said Robert Perry, the NYCLU’s Legislative Director. “The fight for real reform begins on the first day of the 2005 legislative session.”

The new law will also do little or nothing to reform the harsh sentences imposed on “B” felons, those charged with lesser drug offenses, the NYCLU said. For example, an individual who is caught with a gram of a controlled substance, but has a prior offense for illegal use of food stamps, faces 3 ½ to 12 years in prison. The majority of drug offenders serving time in New York prisons are non-violent B felons.

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