The impact of New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws, which provide long sentences for relatively minor crimes, has been reduced over the many years that the legislature has debated softening them, reports the New York Times. Opponents of the laws, proposed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, often portray their legacy as one in which many low-level offenders have languished in prisons as victims 1970s antiheroin efforts. Proponents of the laws warn against a wholesale weakening.
The Times says that in the meantime prosecutors increasingly have been steering addicts into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. The number of people still imprisoned under the original tough sanctions has been falling steadily. Of the 16,564 drug offenders imprisoned on April 3, fewer than 3 percent of them, or 481 people, were serving time for the most serious drug offenses; that number is down from the 724 imprisoned similarly in 1995. Gov. George E. Pataki has used his clemency powers in the most compelling cases, releasing 26 of those prisoners. The governor has also pursued a strategy of releasing nonviolent felons, including drug offenders, early.
Neither the governor nor the state’s two top legislative leaders want to appear as soft on crime. But there has been a growing consensus that the laws are too harsh, a position that was highlighted during election years as all side have sought to appeal to black and Latino constituents. On Wednesday, the Democratic-led Assembly passed its version of a bill to alter the laws, but the Senate prefers its own plan.
The issue has begun to sort itself out through other means, as prosecutors steer defendants toward treatment and some of those imprisoned under the laws completed their sentences.