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May 9, 2008 -- Newsday (NY)

Views Vary At Hearing On [NY] State Drug Laws

By Zachary R. Dowdy

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As spectators booed and cheered, defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment providers and reformers testified before state lawmakers yesterday about the ongoing battle of approaches in enforcing drug laws and rehabilitating offenders.

The daylong hearing in Manhattan marked to the day the 35th anniversary of the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, a set of mandatory sentencing measures that made New York one of the most punitive states.

Speakers urged the panel to build on amendments to the laws in 2004 and 2005, with most calling for a more public-health based approach over a criminal justice strategy. Those alterations lifted the most draconian elements of the laws, such as lifetime incarceration for the most severe offenses.

The hearing is part of a process to determine what else should be done.

"The city bar believes more should be done," said Robert Gottlieb, an attorney in Commack and Manhattan, speaking for the criminal justice council of the bar association of New York. "Allow them into drug treatment, not prison."

Judy Whiting, of the city bar's corrections committee, said the Rockefeller Drug Laws have wreaked "collateral consequences" on people convicted of drug offenses and their families and communities.

"People convicted of drug-related felonies face really serious obstacles to joining society once they are released," she said.

Lisa Schreibersdorf, president of the state Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said legislators should adopt laws to "wipe away" a first-time offender's record for minor drug offenses.

Bridget G. Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for New York City, said reforms to the drug laws have reduced the amount of time people serve in prison and the number of inmates in for drug offenses without lifting the threat of incarceration that motivated many to kick the habit.

"The threat of incarceration is critical to the success of our programs -- and it is a critical element in the success of our efforts to keep dealers from taking over buildings, blocks and neighborhoods," she said.

Brennan echoed prosecutor Rhonda Ferdinand, who runs alternatives to incarceration (ATI) programs for the city. "The plain and unvarnished truth is that for the ATI process, the harsh sentences of the Rockefeller Drug Laws was the backbone of our success," she said, drawing hisses and boos in response.

"Drug cases are on the wane, so somebody's doing something right," said Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn). "The answer may lie somewhere in between" reducing penalties and giving incentives for treatment and curbing the drug trade.

May 2008 -- Newsday (NY)

Editorial: 35 Years Too Long

Time to End Rockefeller Drug Laws

Thirty-five years ago today, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed the drug laws that bear his name, setting the state on a course of costly and ineffective mandatory prison time for non-violent drug offenders. Since then, the war on drugs has waxed and waned, the crack epidemic has come and gone, crime has soared and subsided, and through it all Rockefeller's laws have endured. It's time for a change.

With New York facing big deficits and a shaky economy, the folly of spending more than $32,000 a year to imprison each of about 6,000 people sentenced annually for non-violent drug crimes is an indulgence taxpayers can no longer afford. Gov. David Paterson is opposed to the status quo, so the table may finally be set for meaningful reform.

The cost -- $430 million all in -- would be worth bearing if incarceration were the best way to protect the public and turn drug abusers around. It isn't. Treatment is more effective and costs less -- $17,000 to $21,000 per person, per year, for residential programs, and $2,700 to $4,500 for outpatient care, according to the Correctional Association of New York.

Eliminating mandatory sentences wouldn't mean eliminating prison time for all drug offenders. Judges would be able to sentence people based on their individual crimes and circumstances. Costly prison cells could be reserved for serious drug offenders, rather than their girlfriends or gofers.

Rockefeller's laws were tweaked in 2004, resulting in sentence reductions for 364 inmates. And the 13,427 drug offenders in state prisons in 2007 was the lowest number since 1988. But eliminating mandatory time could drop that count significantly and clear the way to close some prisons. Jobs would be lost upstate, making economic development critical. Still, it's time to scrap tough on crime for smart on crime.

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