ALBANY — The State Assembly on Wednesday announced that it has agreed to pass legislation to repeal much of what remains of the state’s 1970s-era drug laws.
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The proposal, scheduled to come to a floor vote late Wednesday afternoon, would be the first pivotal step in a push to dismantle the laws that tied judges’ hands and imposed mandatory prison terms for many nonviolent drug offenses.
The Assembly’s proposal restores judges’ discretion in sentencing in many lower-level drug possession crimes. Judges would be able to send many offenders to treatment programs instead of prison without receiving consent from prosecutors. In addition, the measure would permit about 2,000 prisoners to apply to have their sentences reconsidered.
The drug laws have been among the most divisive social issues debated by Albany lawmakers. Bills aimed at changing the statutes, known as the Rockefeller drug laws because former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller championed them, have been debated in the Legislature for years, only to stall in the Senate, which until this year was run by Republicans.
With Democrats now in the majority in the Senate and Gov. David A. Paterson an avowed Rockefeller change advocate, supporters of rewriting the drug laws see this year as their best chance to pass a plan that essentially does away with mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
“I think the stars are aligned,” Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, said at a news conference on Wednesday morning. “Its time has come.”
Senate Democrats are expected to debate the issue in a closed-door conference on Wednesday night. Governor Paterson presented legislative leaders with his own proposal this week.
But before any three-way compromise is reached, several sticking points need to be resolved. Those issues include whether drug offenders who do not complete treatment would be sent to prison and whether offenders would first need to be certified as addicted before they could enter a treatment program.
The State Legislature has already eliminated the stiffest provisions of the Rockefeller laws, doing away in 2004 with life sentences for drug crimes and reducing other penalties for the most serious offenses. But supporters of the Assembly plan believe that plan is an opportunity to finish what began in 2004.
Mr. Paterson has said he would like to have the drug sentencing overhaul approved when the Legislature completes action on the fiscal 2010 budget, expected April 1.
“It should not have taken this state 36 years to realize that mandatory sentences are a one-size-fits-all approach,” Mr. Silver said. “We cannot wait another year.”
By JEREMY W. PETERS
Published: March 4, 2009
New York Times