Legislators in New York have reached an agreement with Gov. David Paterson to strike down the state’s punitive Rockefeller-era drug laws, repealing many mandatory-minimum prison sentences while allowing judges the option to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment, the New York Times reported March 25.
The plan, which includes an expansion of treatment programs and drug courts, comes with an estimated $50-million price tag. Marissa Shorenstein, a spokesperson for Paterson, said the deal was a personal victory for the governor, who has made drug reform a priority of his administration.
The legislation give judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment in all but the most serious cases; offenders would have to plead guilty as a condition of avoiding incarceration. Failure to complete the treatment program would send the case back before a judge, who would retain the option of imposing a prison sentence.
Judges also would have the option of sending some repeat drug offenders to treatment. Repeat offenders accused of more serious drug crimes, however, could only go to treatment if an evaluation determined they were drug-dependent.
Some state district attorneys have expressed resistance to changing the laws. “The prison population is going down and public safety has improved, and I’d hate to do anything that would upset either of those trends,” said Michael Green, the district attorney of Monroe County.
Negotiators said finding money to pay for more drug treatment programs will prove difficult. However, the changes are expected to save money since sending offenders to treatment is less expensive than spending $45,000 per inmate per year to keep them imprisoned.
New York has one of the most extensive drug-treatment networks in the country, and the new plan could give the state the sentencing policy it needs to fully utilize its treatment programs, drug-policy experts said.
“New York could actually become a national leader,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that promotes alternatives to current drug policies. “We’re going in a public-health direction here. We’re making that turn, and that’s what’s significant.”