Gotham Gazette

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Drug Law Reform Failed Again

A year in which the governor and all 211 legislators are up for reelection is generally not the politically preferred time to introduce legislation perceived as soft on crime.

Nonetheless, in his January State of the State address Governor George Pataki called once again for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandate harsher penalties for drug convictions than for most violent offenses. Someone convicted of selling two or more ounces of heroin, for example, or possessing four or more ounces of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years -- and may be sentenced to life. Someone convicted of selling a single bag of heroin or a single vial of crack faces five years or more. Pataki's emphasis has been on bringing sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses into line with sentencing for other nonviolent crimes.

You might think this reasonable reform would have been a slam dunk. Yet despite the impression given in the media of widespread support for reform (helped by the hundreds of articles in major newspapers on the unfairness of the laws), proposals have come and gone over the last two years without any law clearing both the Assembly and the Senate.

The antagonistic positions are pretty clear. Democrats in the Assembly tend to believe in rehabilitation and treatment, even of felons with several convictions, and Republicans in the Senate do not. The Democrats have been pushing for greatly reduced sentences as well as judicial discretion to assign an offender to treatment--which they would like to have far more generously funded--rather than prison. (Nearly everyone, even prosecutors, agree that treatment programs are underfunded. Some upstate counties have no drug treatment clinics whatever.) Under the current sentencing system judges are bound by the weight of the drugs seized and the defendant's felony record. Any treatment option (called "diversion") lies with the prosecutors, which is where many Republicans in the Senate intend to keep it. Republicans tend to oppose most decreases in prosecutorial discretion as well as any increases in judicial discretion.

In an attempt to end a stalemate with the Assembly in early May, Governor Pataki softened some key elements of his proposals. While prosecutors would have still determined which defendants deserved treatment, defendants turned down for treatment would be able to appeal to specially trained judges who could overrule the prosecutor (who could then appeal, however). Pataki also proposed substantially lighter sentences--and eliminated the possibility of life imprisonment--for non-violent drug offenders. But in the old-time Rockefeller spirit, Pataki also urged a mandatory five-year sentence for anyone carrying a gun while committing a drug offense.

The Assembly Democrats weren't buying. They said the benign-looking proposals were in fact coercive and counter-productive. Very few drug felons, they argued, would be able to appeal to a judge for treatment rather than prison because only those with either no criminal record or only one prior felony conviction were eligible. Most addicted felons, say Democrats, have more than one conviction- -- a status that Republicans regard unsympathetically. Roughly 1,600 people imprisoned on drug convictions in 2000 were first-time offenders who would have benefited under the governor's proposal. Another 1,750 had more than one conviction on their records and would not have qualified.

Over 94 percent of imprisoned drug offenders are African-American (about 9,700) or Latino (7,800). Most are from New York City, making this look like a classic upstate-downstate issue with New Yorkers pitted against the rest of the state. Yet not everyone in New York City wants the drug laws abolished. While a 1999 Zogby poll concluded that Rockefeller reform was popular among all ethnic groups, nearly half (49 percent) of Latinos called reduced prison sentences for drug offenders "soft on drugs." This compared with 32 percent of blacks and 29 percent of whites. So while Governor Pataki has been targeting his drug proposals to minorities, he has been treading carefully.

Quiet opposition to softening the drug laws also comes from small businesses in neighborhoods affected by drug use. A West Side flower dealer, for example, recently complained to the police about being repeatedly robbed by recently released addicts. "They plagued me ten years ago," he said. "And now they're back. Do I want more of them out? No!"

Much of the public (and media) discussion of the drug laws has focused on sympathetic youngsters--young mothers, for examples--with plausible stories for how mistaken judgment landed them an unfairly harsh sentence. Republicans (and prosecutors) say that three-fourths of first-time drug offenders do not serve any time in prison. They are either given probation or sent to special drug courts, where judges nearly always divert them to treatment. The other one-fourth of first-time offenders who actually do time do far less time than is commonly thought, say Republicans. First-time offenders released from prison last year had served an average of 27 months. Repeat offenders had served an average of 39 months.

The real political debate has been over the most serious felons, who constitute about 28 percent of those incarcerated for drug felonies. The most serious felons were the stumbling block that caused reform to fail last June as well as this June. The Democrats want judges to have the discretion to send such felons to treatment instead of prison. The Republicans, including the governor, want the assent of prosecutors, who argue that at least two-thirds of those imprisoned on drug charges are dealers with two or more prior convictions--in other words, bad guys, not just misguided youngsters.

The district attorneys say they should be in charge of diversion decisions because they know the defendants far better than the judges do. What's more, they say they have been generous with treatment, sending some 2,400 people indicted on drug charges last year into treatment programs. About half had prior convictions. Yes, say the Democrats, but another 11,600 people were sent to prison, and at least some of these should have been candidates for treatment.

To the chagrin of many New Yorkers the legislature has adjourned without touching the drug laws. But there are some who say privately that this is for the best. New York's major crime continues to plummet at least in part because the state has taken so many drug dealers, couriers, and users off the streets. Those on both sides of the debate agree on one time bomb: thousands of felons sentenced harshly are now being released to inadequate treatment and social services.


Last June Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made a triumphant announcement: The city's murder rate had fallen 13 percent over the first six months of the year. The police department had logged 289 murders through June 24 -- or 46 fewer than in the first six months of 2000. Were this rate to continue, the city would experience 581 murders by year end, far fewer than the previous year's 673. When Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik predicted that the city would have fewer than 600 murders, he was harshly reprimanded by Giuliani, who called the goal "very highly unrealistic."

This June Mayor Bloomberg quietly announced that murder had plummeted 12.6 percent in the first six months of the year (the duration of his administration so far). With 256 murders through June 26, 2002 (as opposed to 293 through June 30, 2000) the city may well experience the lowest number of murders for any year since 1965, which had 549.

Robbery was down 8.6 percent, felonious assault down 12.7 percent, and grand larceny down 4.3 percent. Rape, however, was up five percent--a very troubling statistic. Rape data vary substantially by borough. While rape was down 5.6 percent in Staten Island and 1.2 percent in Queens, it was up over eight percent in both Brooklyn and the Bronx--and a tiny, though perhaps ominous, .07 percent in Manhattan.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.

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