Pataki Proposes Changes in Drug Sentencing

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Mar 11, 2001.

  1. March 10, 2001

    early two months after he pledged to loosen the state's strict mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenders, Gov. George E. Pataki released a detailed bill yesterday that would reduce prison sentences in some instances but would also add new penalties for marijuana convictions. He also wants to reduce the state parole board's authority to grant early release from prison.

    Mr. Pataki, a Republican, has long campaigned against parole in general. He has ended parole for those convicted of repeated violent felonies. He has pushed to end parole for all felons, though that has failed to pass the Assembly.

    Now, as part of his package of proposed drug laws, he is calling for what is known as determinate, or definite, sentences for drug offenders. Under the proposal, an inmate would have to serve a fixed minimum sentence, as ordered by a judge. Currently, the state parole board decides when an inmate can be released under parole supervision.

    "It's a continuation of the governor's belief in determinate sentencing," said Caroline Quartararo, a spokeswoman for the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. "We're putting an end to the parole board's discretionary power over sentencing and putting that decision-making back into the hands of the judges, where it belongs."

    The governor's bill also loosens some of the most restrictive sentencing laws: it significantly reduces minimum sentences for the most serious nonviolent drug offenses, for instance, and provides for treatment instead of or in addition to prison time for some drug felons.

    But even as some of Mr. Pataki's most vehement critics praised those aspects of the bill yesterday, the fine print of his proposal drew alarm as well. Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, the group leading the charge to overturn what are known as the Rockefeller laws, said he worried about whether these measures, if they became law, would ultimately place even more low-level dealers behind bars, and for longer.

    "In fact it may have very, very little effect, or it may actually increase the number of people being sent to state prison," Mr. Gangi said. "The governor took a few steps politically in the direction of drug law reform, but our concern is that he's slipping back from that posture."

    New York's Rockefeller-era laws largely apply to hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine, and sentencing is based on the quantity of drugs along with the defendant's past felony record. Judges have no discretion over whether a convicted drug offender should be imprisoned, and they cannot take into account whether any violence was committed. Critics say these laws have crowded prisons with low-level drug dealers and addicts who need treatment. For several years, the critics have pressed for greater judicial discretion over sentencing - a move vigorously contested by the state's prosecutors and their allies in Albany.

    The governor's proposal would reduce penalties for the most serious nonviolent drug offenders: those convicted of class A felonies, now punishable by a minimum sentence of 15 years to life, for instance, would have their sentences reduced to a minimum of 8 1/3 years to life.

    Under his proposal, those who are arrested repeatedly on charges of marijuana sales and possession would face felony charges, instead of misdemeanor charges as they do now. His bill would also stiffen penalties for possession and sale of large quantities of marijuana, and impose tougher sentences on those arrested on drug charges in parks.

    How the governor's bill will fare with the Democrats in the Assembly remains unclear. Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, said the Democratic conference would take up the matter next week when the legislative session resumes.

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