Sunday, March 01, 2009

overhaul of rockefeller drug laws moves ahead swiftly

NYTimes | On a fall afternoon in 2002, the New York City police broke up a protest in front of Gov. George E. Pataki’s office in Midtown Manhattan and hauled a dozen demonstrators away.

The protesters were demanding that Mr. Pataki repeal the state’s 30-year-old drug sentencing laws, widely regarded as the nation’s most unforgiving. One of those placed in plastic handcuffs and carted off to a police station was a state senator named David A. Paterson.

Now, with Mr. Paterson in the governor’s mansion and Democrats in control of both houses of the State Legislature, an aggressive effort is under way to finally dismantle what remains of the stringent 1970s-era drug laws, which imposed stiff mandatory sentences as a way to combat the heroin epidemic then gripping New York City.

The Assembly is expected to pass legislation on Tuesday that would once again give judges the discretion to send those found guilty of having smaller amounts of illegal drugs to substance-abuse treatment instead of prison and allow thousands of inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to apply to have their sentences reduced or commuted.

Meanwhile, the governor’s office is preparing legislation that it plans to present to Senate leaders on Monday that would also give judges discretion in sentencing, according to a senior administration official involved in drafting the bills. But for now, the governor is not taking a position on whether sentences should be reduced for some prisoners.

For its part, the Senate is expected to take up legislation in the coming weeks that would also be aimed at strengthening judges’ roles in sentencing.

“Returning discretion to judges is really the heart of where we want to go,” said Jeffrion L. Aubry, an assemblyman who represents Queens and has led efforts to overturn the statutes, known as the Rockefeller drug laws because Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller made them a centerpiece of his agenda.

“When we take away those mandatory minimums and restore judicial discretion, that’s when you can say Rockefeller is no longer there,” Mr. Aubry said.