New Bill Meets Governor Pataki
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver introduced legislation today designed to jumpstart negotiations to reform the controversial Rockefeller mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Although both the Governor and the Assembly majority support changing the drug laws and have previously offered reform legislation, the latter's new bill substantially bridges the gulf between the Governor's and Assembly's reform proposals. Community advocates say a fairer drug sentencing policy is on the horizon, if the state leaders meet to negotiate in good faith before the end of this year's legislative session.
"The Assembly majority has adopted the Governor's framework, while preserving the key components that both sides should be able to agree on as necessary for meaningful reform," said former Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferrer. "This is major progress. If the leaders act in good faith and work with what they all agree on, the state will save money and use our resources more effectively by redirecting them from incarceration towards treatment and rehabilitation. We may also be able to reunite families of some of the people serving disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug offenses by as early as the holiday season."
Talks have been ongoing with reform advocates and representatives from the Governor's office. A revised version of the Governor's bill is expected to be released soon. Hopes are high that a resolution can be achieved by the end of the month.
The new Assembly majority reform bill makes concessions on issues reflecting the different philosophical approaches of the two plans that many feared might end in a legislative stalemate, including:
- Allows prosecutors the first choice regarding drug defendants who should be diverted into treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
- Restricts pool of offenders eligible for diversion to people with no more than one prior non-violent offense.
- Adopts the Governor's sentencing scheme for the category of offenders convicted of the most serious drug offenses.
- Excludes eligible inmates from retroactive sentencing relief based on prior violent offense or a decision from the court.
- Enhances penalties for those physically convicted of gun possession during the commission of a drug crime.
- Stipulates that a person simultaneously charged with a violent felony and a non-violent drug case can be diverted on the drug case but with no impact on the violent charge.
- Allows incarcerated non-violent low level offenders within three years of their release date to apply for early entry into drug treatment re-entry programs.
- Creates a new category of offenses, a B2 felony offense, applying to any sale or intent to sell less than two grams of any narcotic.
- Establishes a required training program on drug cases for trial judges with courses administered by district attorneys, public defenders, and a state certified drug treatment specialist.
- Allocates monetary savings from diversion to drug treatment providers, with a percentage for prosecutors, public defenders and probation.
Rockefeller Drug Law reform advocates stress that the new Assembly bill is a very moderate one. "There are a number of ways in which the statutes could be expanded to restore more sentencing discretion to judges for a larger category of offenders," said Deborah Small, Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach at the Drug Policy Alliance. "For instance, both the Governor and the Assembly bills would exclude drug offenders with more than one prior offense or any violent offense from being diverted by a judge into community-based drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Ironically, this is a group of people who are most in need of, and would benefit the most from drug treatment."
With another legislative session nearing its end, however, most advocates want to avoid a repeat of last year's session, where state leadership repeatedly promised reform but ended without resolution. Given the progress in the Assembly and the expectation that the Governor will follow with a new reform proposal, the stage has been set for effective negotiations and a new drug sentencing policy for New York in the coming weeks.