Monday, February 09, 2009

Rockefeller Laws: An End in Sight

by The New York Times
February 8, 2009

It took 35 years.

The New York Legislature finally seems poised to overturn the infamous Rockefeller drug laws. The impending change comes too late for the tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who wasted away in prison because of mandatory sentencing policies when they should have been given treatment and leniency. But after years of building support for reform, legislative leaders now have it within their power to make wholesale changes in this profoundly destructive law.

The Rockefeller laws tied the hands of judges by requiring lengthy prison terms even for first-time offenders. Essentially, the law allowed prosecutors to decide who went to jail and for how long. The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade.

The law has been especially disastrous for black and Latino offenders, who represent the overwhelming majority of those held in state prison for drug offenses. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made just that point last week when he criticized a state commission that had been appointed to study the reform issue. The commission, which appears to have been dominated by prosecutors, called for more rational sentencing guidelines and allowing judges to send more offenders to treatment instead of prison. But it failed to get to the heart of the matter, which is a full restoration of judicial discretion.

Mr. Silver, who has favored reform for many years, described the panel’s report as “a missed opportunity” and signaled his intent to push for legislation that would eliminate mandatory sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes and expand judicial authority. Real reform “means untying the hands of our judiciary,” he noted, “and placing emphasis on probation, alternatives to incarceration and treatment.”

Republican lawmakers who represent prison districts and the correction officers’ unions normally block reform. But Rockefeller reform seems almost certain now that that Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. That’s welcome news in the state that has squandered many young lives and started the national trend toward mandatory sentencing.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home