What Legislation Did Gov. Pataki Propose On July 15?
On June, 18th 2003, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno met with Governor Pataki to negotiate a Rockefeller Drug Law reform compromise. (Ultimately, any Rockefeller Drug Law reform proposal would have to be approved by both houses that these men represent in order to be enacted.) Governor Pataki claims that his proposed legislation of July 15 represents the agreement made at that meeting. However, the Governor never made provisions for his proposal to be reviewed by everyone who was involved in the negotiations before making it public. The proposal is not an accurate representation of the agreement reached during that meeting.
What the proposed bill does look like is a recycled version of the Governor's previous proposals, each of which has been widely criticized throughout the state for failing to deliver on the promise of significant and dramatic reform.
Why Do Advocates Say Pataki's Bill Isn't Real Reform?
Pataki's drug law bill, rather than representing the most promising elements of the on-going negotiations between New York's legislative leaders, is a step backwards from what the Governor himself had previously proposed. It takes a harder line on sentencing enhancements (see below) and does little to reverse the major elements of the Rockefeller Drug Laws that have been the focus of community advocacy efforts: (1) lower sentences for all categories of drug offenses; (2) restoration of judicial discretion to impose appropriate sentences and divert addicted offenders into treatment; (3) increased community-based drug treatment options; and (4) retroactive relief for the thousands of people currently serving time under these laws.
Pataki's Drug Law proposal would allow for only a few hundred of the nearly 19,000 people in prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to have their sentences reduced. The rest would have to qualify for an increased "merit time" reduction, for which the Governor's new bill imposes stricter requirements than currently exist.
With some of the most critical elements that have made these 30 year old laws so bad left intact, it would be disingenuous to call this proposed legislation reform. The Governor's July 15 proposal, like its predecessors, is seriously flawed. Among its failings:
It provides modest reductions in the current mandatory minimum drug sentences and limited relief to current drug inmates while at the same time preserving the most egregious aspects of the current laws.
Pataki's drug law bill would not give any sentencing authority back to judges -- an essential component of any genuine reform bill.
The bill lowers certain penalties but then hikes them back up again with new punishments for people (1) who have been convicted of more than two previous drug offenses (not uncommon for people suffering from addiction who have not had access to drug treatment), (2) anyone possessing or "attempting" to possess a weapon (what "attempting" refers to is not clear), and (3) nonviolent drug offenders who have been previously convicted of any violent offense at any time in the past.
The definition of "kingpin" in Pataki's bill is so vague that it could very well subject minor drug offenders to the new 30 year mandatory sentences under these guidelines. Ironically, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were originally intended to ensnare "kingpins" but their results have obviously been very different.
What Are The Prospects For Meaningful Reform?
In order for the Rockefeller Drug Law reform stalemate to end and balance in drug sentencing restored in New York, Governor Pataki, Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Bruno will have to meet each other half way. That is reality. However, a slick attempt by the Governor to take the worst of his old proposals, add on new harsh provisions and pass it off as a bi-partisan compromise is not going to help make this happen. If the Governor listens and really compromises, maybe the dance would end and progress will follow. It could still happen in time for the anticipated legislative session in September of this year.
The proponents for Rockefeller Drug Law reform both in and outside of elected office have not been averse to compromise. Although the activist base has been most in favor of repealing the laws altogether and restoring the role of judges in drug cases that existed before 1973, many groups have come to accept reform as a reasonable compromise, as long as it does not repackage the old laws in a new costume. The negotiations over the last few years have not been without difficult compromise. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has made significant concessions to the Governor and State Senate such as moving from the current indeterminate sentencing scheme to determinate sentencing which would effectively eliminate parole for drug offenders. Drug Policy Alliance and others were even willing to accept a proposal that would allow prosecutors to continue to have the first say in the diversion process, if there were basic standards and accountability for their decisions. Such compromises were not easy but are necessary for an agreement to be reached.
Background: What's Wrong With the Rockefeller Laws?
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have inspired a tremendous amount of controversy and criticism since they were enacted in 1973. They have been responsible for an explosion in the population of low-level non-violent drug offenders in New York State prisons. Many critics have characterized their impact as racist because 93% of the people sentenced under these laws are from black and Latino communities, despite the equal prevalence of illegal drugs in white communities.
These laws require mandatory prison sentences of up to 15 years to life for even first time drug offenses. They also impose stiff sentences on repeat drug offenders regardless of the amount of drugs involved. The ability of trial judges to pass down sentences based on individual cases is stripped away. People who would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment are instead locked up at a huge cost to taxpayers and never get the rehabilitation they need. Thousands of people languish behind bars far away from their families, serving sentences longer than are often handed down for some of the most notorious criminal offenses.
Who Likes The Drug Laws the Way They Are?
Who benefits from laws that impose heavy sentences for relatively minor drug offenses, make it more likely that defendants will plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a shorter sentence, and dramatically increase conviction rates? The answer is obvious...; the state's prosecutors, whose job is to convict defendants. The Rockefeller Drug Laws have resulted in a dramatic transfer in the balance of power over drug defendants in favor of prosecutors. The New York State District Attorney's Association, a powerful special interest group representing the prosecutors, opposes lower sentences and restoration of judicial discretion because as it stands now, they control every step of the conviction and sentencing process. It is because of their influence that Governor Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Bruno have been continuously resistant to drug law reform plan that would significantly restore the traditional role of judges in determining the appropriate disposition of each case.