After false starts over many years, New York legislators voted yesterday to cut the steep mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes in the state, the New York Times reports. The push to soften the “Rockefeller drug laws,” among the nation’s most severe, came after a nearly decade-long campaign to ease penalties instituted in the 1970’s that put some low-level first-time drug offenders behind bars for sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
The new law, which Gov. George E. Pataki said he would sign, reduces the sentence for those offenders to 8 to 20 years in prison. The law allows more than 400 inmates serving lengthy prison terms on those counts to apply to judges to get out of jail early. The changes reflected a nationwide push to lessen some of the punishments for drug offenders, as states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have moved to emphasize drug treatment options or to give judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of narcotics crimes. A study by Democrats in the State Senate found that New York imposed the nation’s harshest penalties for low-level drug offenders. It found that 32 states offer probation to nonviolent offenders who sell small amounts of drugs, and that New York was the only state requiring more than three years in prison.