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New York State is about to enact major changes in its Rockefeller drug laws, which contain some of the harshest mandatory-minimum sentences in the nation. The activists who've been trying to repeal those laws for years say it's a very welcome move but doesn't go far enough.
"I think it's a really positive step forward. It is not the end of the Rockefeller drug laws, but hopefully, it's the beginning of the end," says Caitlin Dunklee of the Drop the Rock campaign, an umbrella group campaigning to repeal the laws.
The bill "breaches the mandatory-sentencing wall," adds Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, the prison-reform group behind Drop the Rock. It might divert half the state's convicted drug felons from prison, the group estimates.
The bill came about as part of a deal among the "three men in a room" who control New York's government: Gov. David Paterson, state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, all Democrats. They agreed to include it in the state's budget, so it would not be voted on separately. After several days of delay, the state Senate approved the bill on a 32-30 party-line vote on Thursday, April 2. Paterson has promised to sign it.
The new law eliminates the mandatory minimum of a year in prison for first offenders charged with Class B felonies (sale of up to 1/2 ounce of cocaine or heroin, or possession with intent to sell) and first or second offenders charged with lesser felonies (such as possession of 1/2 gram of cocaine). It also expands drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration. Second offenders charged with B felonies, who now face an automatic 4 1/2 to 9 years, might be able to get treatment instead of prison if they can prove they're drug-dependent.
On the other hand, the bill retains the mandatory-minimum sentences for all other accused dealers, and only about one-eighth of the state's 13,400 drug prisoners will be able to apply for reduced sentences.
The old law, Silver said in a statement, "has not impacted crime or reduced addiction, but, rather, has led to a massive increase in New York's prison population."
Drug offenders make up one-fifth of the state's male inmates and one-third of the female inmates. More than 90 percent of them are black or Latino, and about 40 percent are incarcerated for possession charges.
Paterson was arrested at a civil-disobedience protest against the Rockefeller laws in 2002, when he was a state senator representing Harlem, but he has taken a more cautious stance since he succeeded Eliot Spitzer as governor last year. He objected to several provisions in a drug-law bill passed by the Assembly in March.
Gangi credits activist pressure for getting him to compromise. The deal was reached on the night of March 25, a few hours after about 250 people demonstrated outside the governor's Manhattan offices.
"We heard that Paterson's staffers were asking, 'Can we make a deal before the rally?' " Gangi says.
According to Paterson spokeswoman Marissa Shorenstein, the governor agreed to end mandatory minimums for second offenders charged with felonies below Class B, and to allow drug prisoners to apply for resentencing.
But he insisted that accused drug offenders who wanted treatment instead of prison would have to plead guilty first, on the grounds that the threat of prison would make drug users more likely to stick with treatment. The governor's philosophy is "treat, don't punish, but treat to be effective," Shorenstein explains.
The bill also revives the Rockefeller law's original 15-years-to-life sentences, this time for "kingpins" convicted of selling more than $75,000 worth of drugs.
The state's prosecutors largely oppose easing the law. And the New York Daily News editorial page, long a loud voice for the "fry 'em" approach to crime, called the proposed changes the "Drug Dealer Protection Act" and said they would unleash a crime wave.
New York's current drug laws date from 1973, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was facing two problems. First, heroin-related crime was exploding, with dope fiends funding their habits with muggings and burglaries and dealers killing each other in business disputes.
Steven Wishnia is a New York journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.