Report Recommends Less Punitive NY Drug Laws

Some drug offenders will spend less time in prison and more time in rehab if some state lawmakers have their way.

A state commission recommended on Tuesday to allow judges to send more drug offenders to treatment centers instead of prison, boosting the case for state Democrats looking to revise New York's rigid drug penalties.

No politician has been a bigger advocate for drug penalty reform than Gov. David Paterson. Paterson championed changing drug sentencing as a state senator and has said the issue would be a top priority of his administration.

“Since I got here in 1985, I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws,” said Paterson in his state of the state address in January.

The governor dispatched senior members of his staff to work with leading lawmakers to draft legislation that would rewrite the Rockefeller-era drug laws, according to the New York Times.

“We still have to expand treatment services; we have to give judges the opportunity to put low level offenders into treatment, and we have to make sure that our prisons are housing the most egregious of our drug policy offenders," said Paterson, who was arrested in 2002 in an act of civil disobedience protesting the Rockefeller drug laws.

Currently, mandatory sentences on drug-related crimes in New York limits the kind of sentences judges can give drug offenders. The commission recommended creating uniform standards for determining which offenders are drug-addicted and allowing judges greater authority to select treatment instead of mandatory incarceration.

Many Democratic lawmakers and advocates, while pleased with the progress, believe the commission's recommendations did not go far enough. They'd like to repeal the Rockefeller-era drug law's mandatory sentencing requirements, which are thought to be too harsh and punitive.

“The commission held in its hands a unique opportunity to help undo 35 years of failed drug policy,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wrote in a letter to Paterson's top public safety aid. “I am saddened that it failed to do so.”

The commission's plan would double the existing drug weight requirements for most major felony drug sale and possession crimes, make many lesser first-time felony drug offenders eligible for probation or a jail term rather than mandatory prison, and expand parole as an option for convicted offenders.

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