New York Weighs Easing Drug Laws
By Richard Zitrin, Special to Stateline
In the early 1970s, when he was a Republican state legislator from Long Island and chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, John Dunne helped champion what turned out to be among the harshest anti-drug laws in the nation.
Passed during the final administration of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the New York laws mandate stiff mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders -- for example, 15 years to life for possessing four ounces of an illicit drug or selling two ounces, regardless of a person's background, criminal history or role in a drug crime.
Also, they severely restrict the ability of judges to send offenders to drug-treatment programs. As a result, many drug users who need help are unable to receive it, and the state's prison system and inmate population has exploded.
In some quarters, Rockefeller was suspected of supporting the strict laws because he had presidential ambitions and wanted a tough-on-crime image.
Five years ago, Dunne, who is now an Albany attorney, came to view the so-called Rockefeller drug laws as unjust and ineffective, and dedicated himself to efforts to undo them. New York state has spent more than $2 billion on prison construction since the laws were passed and one-third of the state's prison inmates are drug offenders, he says.
Now, after several years of political wrangling, change finally may be at hand.
Dunne, U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights from 1990 to 1993 under the first President Bush, says he believes the mood is right for revamping the drug laws, in part because Republican Gov. George Pataki is running for re-election.
Easing the laws may help Pataki curry favor with African-American and Latino voters, Dunne says. Ninety-four percent of the drug offenders in New York state prisons are African-American and Latino.
Pataki "wants this issue to be out of the way. He wants to demonstrate that he's sensitive to and can respond to interests of the communities of color " Dunne told Stateline.org. .
Pataki's plan, which passed the state Senate last week (6/12) would soften penalties and expand drug treatment for nonviolent offenders. Under current law, prosecutors determine whether defendants should be admitted to treatment programs. District attorneys would maintain that control under Pataki's plan, although a nonviolent offender would be able to appeal a prosecutor's decision to a judge.
His plan also eliminates life sentences, reduces sentences for nonviolent offenders, and increases penalties for violent offenders who commit crimes while carrying guns and drug dealers who oversee operations of more than three people.
The state Assembly this week is expected to pass a Democratic alternative. It also gives prosecutors first say over whether low-level nonviolent drug offenders should be admitted to treatment programs instead of prison, but gives judges more leeway.
The Democratic plan would also require a training program for judges who handle drug cases. Like the governor's plan, it also would end life sentences for high-level felony drug offenders and adopt lower sentencing guidelines. Dunne says leaders in both houses of the state Legislature are prepared to negotiate a compromise and Pataki is expected to step in and broker a deal.