Drug Law Reforms Kick In, Treatment Stressed

Rockefeller laws were among harshest in nation

Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009  |  Updated 11:00 AM EDT
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Drug Law Reforms Kick In, Treatment Stressed

The Rockefeller laws put people behind bars for low-level drug infractions.

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Lawyers are expected to start filing petitions for resentencing low-level drug offenders held in New York's prisons now that changes easing some of the state's drug laws have taken effect.

     Gov. David Paterson and lawmakers agreed in April to revise the Rockefeller-era drug laws, once among the harshest in the nation and in the vanguard of a movement more than 30 years ago toward mandatory prison terms. They argued that lower-level offenders would be better served by addiction treatment rather than prison.
 
Many inmates locked up under the old law may ask for new, lesser sentences starting today.
    
New York Legal Aid Society lawyer Bill Givney says they have about 270 New York City cases among the roughly 1,100 inmates statewide identified by prison officials as eligible.

Long deemed among the toughest rules of their kind in the country, the Rockefeller laws imposed mandatory minimum prison requirements in 1973 on low-level drug criminals.

Judges will now be able to use techniques like treatment and counseling that have proven more effective than prison for low-level offenders. At the same time, penalties have been toughened for drug kingpins.

"We are reforming these laws to treat those who suffer from addiction and to punish those who profit from it,”  Paterson said.

Authorities enacted the harsh laws in New York nearly four decades ago amid widespread heroin use in poor communities. The state’s move prompted a spate of similar legal actions across the nation, but as other states have moved to repeal some of the stricter aspects of the laws, New York had refused to budge -- until now.

The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisions pushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." The strictest provisions were removed in 2004.
   
Critics have long claimed the laws were draconian and crowded prisons with people who would be better served with treatment. The changes eliminate mandatory minimum terms for some low-level nonviolent drug felonies, which could cut the prison population by thousands.

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