New York Gov. George E. Pataki met yesterday with Russell Simmons, the hip-hop businessman who has emerged as a leading advocate for revising the 30-year old “Rockfeller Law” penalties for drug crimes. The meeting came amid signs of movement toward liberalization of the penalties, the New York Times reports.
Simmons will meet today in Albany with legislative leaders to press for changes in the laws, and spokesmen for the Republican governor and the Democratic Assembly speaker hinted that there might be progress toward a deal in the days ahead. The issue has been stalled for two and a half years. The legislature adjourns this month.
All three sides agree that the mandatory sentences for minor drug offenses are overly harsh, but they have been unable to agree on who should have the largest voice in sentencing. The governor would let prosecutors decide but would allow defendants to appeal a decision to a judge. Senate Republicans have supported the governor’s position, but Assembly Democrats want the power to go to judges.
“There will be dramatic change,” Simmons said after meeting with Pataki. The laws were adopted at the height of a crime wave linked to the drug trade and named for Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who sponsored them. Opponents want to change the laws, which impose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, even for first-time nonviolent offenders. A group called the Drug Policy Alliance has three goals: make sentences for nonviolent drug offenders proportionate to sentences of other nonviolent offenders; make sentencing relief retroactive so that those currently in prison can be released; and see that judges rather than prosecutors have the power to decide who qualifies for drug treatment.