On May 8th, the beginning of the 30th year since New York's Rockefeller drug laws were adopted, Governor George Pataki reiterated his pledge to reform them in a written statement (see www.state.ny.us/governor/press/year02/may8_1_02.htm
). Yet family members of incarcerated drug offenders and other advocates for reform call the proposal he announced today "all talk and no action." The Governor's plan still neglects to include the crucial components of reform outlined in legislation proposed by the Assembly Democrats, including expanding the ability of judges to decide who should go into community-based treatment instead of prison; saving taxpayers money by providing opportunities for rehabilitation and early release for the thousands of New Yorkers currently incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses; and significantly lowering the length of sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
As Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate said, "When in last year's State of the State Address Governor Pataki announced his willingness to take the lead in reforming the Rockefeller drug laws, many of us felt a sense that finally things had come around. But in fact there has been very little resemblance between the rhetoric and the actions since then and that's caused a tremendous amount of concern."
Though Pataki claims to be moving towards greater sentencing discretion for judges and expanded access to drug treatment instead of prison for non-violent drug offenders, his plan creates many restrictions on their ability to do so. The proposal as described would still maintain the prosecutorial stranglehold over key aspects regarding disposition of drug cases. It also retains many of the worst features of the current laws including the relatively low thresholds triggering A-I or A-II status (4 oz. possession/2oz. sale of any narcotic drug); and does little to offer sentencing relief to those currently incarcerated under these laws. Pataki's newest proposal to modify the Rockefeller drug laws still falls dramatically short of what can be considered meaningful reform.
"The governor must propose substantive changes to these draconian laws if he wants to call himself a 'reformer'," says Deborah Small, Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach at Drug Policy Alliance, "What he is offering fails to correct the ills caused by the Rockefeller drug laws by restoring fairness to the criminal justice system and redirecting state resources away from incarceration towards treatment, education and rehabilitation."
The Assembly majority's Rockefeller reform bill is a much better option, continued Small.
In order for Rockefeller drug law reform to have a significant impact on reducing unnecessary and expensive incarceration, enhancing public safety and expanding treatment of addiction, it must be comprehensive, balanced and supported by adequate funding.
Governor Pataki's newest proposal lacks substantial progress in the following aspects:
Does not include a reduction in sentences for drug offenders proportionate to the severity of the crime. Pataki's proposal would maintain the low weight threshold (2 ounces for sales and 4 ounces for possession of any narcotic) triggering the harshest mandatory sentences.
Has extremely limited retroactive application of reform measures so that only a small percentage of inmates currently sentenced under these laws can petition the courts for review of their sentences. Pataki's proposal would allow certain inmates sentenced under the harshest provisions of the drug laws to petition the court for a reduction in their sentence. At most about 600 offenders out of the nearly 20,000 people serving time for non-violent drug offenses in New York state prisons would benefit from this relief.
Offers only narrow restoration of judicial discretion to sentence non-violent addicted offenders to court-supervised community-based treatment. Pataki's proposal maintains the prosecutorial stranglehold of the Rockefeller Laws. Judicial discretion is restored only for a small number of cases, first time offenders charged with possession offenses.
Fails to expand substance abuse treatment, alcoholism and alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs to accommodate increased diversion from incarceration of appropriate offenders. Regrettably, the Governor's proposal includes no new funding for the expansion of drug treatment diversion programs and is silent on the issue of additional resources for probation or parole supervision. Nor does it include any additional funding for in-prison drug treatment or for transitional services for newly released offenders. The Assembly plan, on the other hand, allocates $100 million in resources to expand drug treatment for diverted offenders
This week, opponents to the Rockefeller drug laws marked the beginning of the 30th year since their inception with protests and outreach to the people of New York. On May 8th, an interfaith press conference was held in Albany with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish leaders calling on Governor Pataki to reform the unjust Rockefeller drug laws and untie the hands of trial judges. The same day, a rally by hundreds of New Yorkers outside of Governor Pataki's mid-Manhattan office was led by Rev. Al Sharpton, Mothers of the New York Disappeared (mothers of people imprisoned under these laws), the William Moses Kunstler Fund and JusticeWorks Community. Full page ads calling on Pataki to fulfill on his pledge appeared in El Diario and the Manhattan Times.
Over 150,000 calls are running from recorded messages by former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and potential presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton to New Yorkers, particularly in minority communities, to urge voters to call Governor Pataki and communicate their support for a drug law reform plan that includes sentencing relief for the thousands of non-violent drug offenders currently serving mandatory sentences -- over 94% of whom are Latino or African-American (recorded phone message can be heard at www.cecj.org
"As long as we continue to get rhetoric instead of meaningful reform proposals, our efforts to reach out to the public and encourage them to advocate for sane and effective criminal justice policies will continue," said Deborah Small. "The lives of too many people, their families and our communities are at stake."