Another Small Step on Drug Reform

Governor signs latest rifle-shot modification of draconian Rockefeller era statutes

There was no dancing in the streets when Governor George Pataki on September 1 signed into law legislation permitting prisoners serving long sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to apply for reduced sentences.

It was the second law passed in two years permitting judges to reduce sentences for inmates serving time under New York’s draconian drug laws.

Last year, the legislation affected 466 A-1 drug felons, the prisoners convicted of the most serious drug offenses. This year the new law made the next level, A-2 offenses, eligible for sentence reduction, an additional 540 convicted drug dealers and drug users.

Legislation aimed at a narrow group is termed a rifle-shot approach by attorneys because the target group is so small, and this is the reason for the muted reaction among drug reformers.

“This is a chip in the wall, and we want to knock holes in the wall.” explained Robert Gangi, the director of the Correctional Association of New York in a telephone interview.

Nonetheless the drug law reform movement has won victories two years running in Albany, and in perhaps the surest sign of its progress, the police and district attorneys have created a new organization, The Law Enforcement Coalition Against Drug Decriminalization, to counter the activists calling for “dropping the rock,” that is repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted during the 1970s.

An additional complaint among reformers is that the resentencing is proceeding slowly. It takes months and sometimes more than a year to simply collect the paperwork surrounding the arrest and conviction and the prisoner’s disciplinary record information that must be presented to the judge at the resentencing hearing. One of the men receiving accolades from reformers for his hardwork, William Gibney of the Legal Aid Society, told the Associated Press, “In my opinion, many DAs are coming in with sentence recommendations that are high. They are not opposing resentencing, but they’re disputing what the sentences should be.”

As a result of these obstacles, only 20 percent of the first group of Rockefeller Law inmates eligible for resentencing have been released from prison. According to the Associated Press, “Through July, 184 of the 446 inmates convicted of A-1 felonies who were eligible to have their prison terms reduced have gone through the process and been resentenced. Of those, 88 have been released, Corrections Department spokeswoman Linda Foglia said.”

Gabriel Sayegh, a policy analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance, said 92 percent of the inmates serving these long sentences are black or Latino.

The next step for the movement will be renewed lobbying of the Legislature at the next session before the 2006 elections. Reformers are calling for reducing sentences to levels comparable to other non-violent crimes and restoring judicial discretion so judges can fashion just sentences based on consideration of the particular case and, when appropriate, sentence low-level offenders to community-based treatment.

The reform groups will continue to demand retroactive sentencing relief and expanded drug treatment programs and other alternative to incarceration for diverted low-level offenders. This legislative program would eventually end mandatory sentencing for drug offenses and that is the essence of Rockefeller Drug Law repeal effort.