Advocates for prison reform are complaining that New York State’s amendments to the 1970s Rockefeller drug laws are relatively modest and may reduce public pressure for a more comprehensive overhaul in the way the state treats drug offenders. The New York Times say that “to some advocates, the new bill is not even half a loaf, but more like a heel of bread, which will leave many prisoners and their families with dashed hopes.” Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group, says, “The important message to get out is that the laws are virtually as harsh as ever.” Judges must still sentence drug offenders to prison, rather than to alternatives like drug treatment.
If New York still has some of the longest mandatory drug sentences in the nation, “I think they should be,” said Senator Dale Volker, a Republican from western New York who was in office in 1973 when Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller pushed for laws to fight a growing heroin problem. Chauncey Parker, state director of criminal justice services, said that people arrested for felony level drug offenses have an average of three previous felony arrests and four prior misdemeanor arrests. The new legislation, which Gov. George Pataki has pledged to sign, will reduce minimum sentences for drug offenses. First-time offenders convicted of a Class A-1 drug felony, who under current law must receive a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison, would face terms of under eight years. Some 446 inmates who were sentenced to especially long sentences, as much as 25 years behind bars, will now be able to ask judges to cut their terms to the new, lower levels.