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Changes to the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws are shaking up more people than rock n’ roll ever did.
While hailed by both the Assembly and the State Senate, the new “compromise” to loosening the long criticized narcotics laws is being both lauded and panned across the borough.
Opponents to the changes fear that the retooled laws will put upwards of 1,500 incarcerated drug dealers and users back out on the streets.
“What the Governor and the Senate Majority and Assembly are trying to do is create the ‘Drug Dealers Protection Act,’” said Bay Ridge State Senator Martin Golden, a Republican. “They take away the voice of district attorneys and hand over all discretion to judges.”
Golden said that the changes will keep the revolving door of justice spinning.
“The nickel and dime seller of heroin and cocaine to escape prosecution and the scourge of our society will have the run of our streets,” he said.
The compromise, which will be reportedly be inserted in the state budget, allows convicted felons to receive drug treatment instead of jail time if the presiding judge deems that it is warranted.
It also calls for drug courts state wide, as well as use $80 million in state funds to pay for new and expanded drug rehab programs.
“I have been fighting to overhaul the drug laws and restore judicial discretion in narcotics cases since I began my career in public service as a State Senator nearly a quarter-century ago,” Governor David Paterson said in a statement. “I have seen too many lives destroyed by outrageously harsh and ineffective mandatory sentencing laws, and I have also seen too many lives ruined by despicable dealers who prey on the vulnerabilities and addictions of others. I believe this agreement strikes the right balance, and I urge the Legislature to enact it immediately, before more lives and communities are needlessly destroyed.”
According to published reports, the new compromise will also allow 1,500 incarcerated drug felons to apply for early release once the new law takes affect.
State officials said that violent offenders wouldn’t qualify for drug treatment or early release.
Early last month, the State Senate seemed deadlocked over a Rockefeller Drug Law reform bill passed by the Assembly.
That law also called for giving judges more discretion over sentencing as well as more drug treatment for convicts suffering from addiction.
Ever since the laws were created 35 years ago, many have criticized the stringent prison sentences for those convicted of drug offenses in New York.
Opponents say that the laws have no wiggle room and that people convicted of low-level drug offenses are given the same sentences as drug kingpins.
Critics of the new plan think just the opposite will happen this time around: drug kingpins will receive the same light sentences that addicts arrested on non-violent drug crimes would if they can charm the judge enough.
The widespread discretion about to be given over to judges should remain with county prosecutors, some said.
Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes already has in place a Drug Treatment Alternative-to-prison Program (DTAP) where those arrested for low-level drug crimes will be sent to rehab instead of prison.
“It’s been very successful and has made a great impact,” he said in a recent interview, adding that Kings County already has its own drug court. “Judges do a fine job, but in cases like this the district attorneys should be the gatekeepers.”
Many borough legislators hailed the tweaks to the intractable law.
“This is a promise made, and a promise kept,” Said Canarsie State Senator John Sampson, who is chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “The Rockefeller Drug Laws have decimated communities and destroyed lives. The reforms we made in 2004 were just a down payment. We’ve now paid off the mortgage.”
“We’re not opening up the floodgates, we’re not going to release violent drug dealers,” he explained. “We’re talking about helping drug addicts, not helping the distributors and kingpins.”
“Judicial discretion has always been one of the core principles for which the Assembly has fought,” added Assemblymember Helene Weinstein. “With the expansion of drug courts and other options to treat addicts, we are moving toward dealing with the underlying problems of drug offenders — giving them the opportunity to get treatment and reduce recidivism in New York.”
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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