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New York Governor George Pataki, who said following his election in 1994 that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were too harsh, last week commuted the sentences of five non-violent convicts serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years-to-life under the controversial legislation. With the Legislative session scheduled to begin next week with the Governor’s State of the State message, longtime advocates for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws are more encouraged than they have been in years that the tough narcotic laws will finally be changed. Reform efforts have been repeatedly stymied by politics. For many years, Democrats favored major reform or even repeal, but could not secure the support of Republicans. Then, when the Republicans who control the New York state Senate began to look favorably on moderate reforms, the Democrats in the state Assembly balked out of election-year fear of appearing soft on crime. But now there seems to be an emerging consensus not only that something should be done, but that something can be done. The grants of clemency, which confer immediate parole eligibility on the inmates, follow a holiday season pattern embraced by the governor. Since taking office, Pataki has commuted the sentences of 23 individuals, and nearly every one of them was serving time under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The statutes enacted in 1973 under Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller require mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for selling as little as two ounces of cocaine or possessing four ounces. Although most experts agree that the laws have achieved little, if anything, and have mainly resulted in a 500 percent explosion in the state prison population, reform has been politically problematic. MYRIAD PROPOSALS Currently, the debate centers not so much on whether to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but how. All three branches of government, a variety of advocates and individual lawmakers have different views on that. Pataki has indicated a willingness to afford judges greater discretion in sentencing drug offenders, but in return wants an end to discretionary parole. Lawmakers have come up with proposals ranging from repeal of the laws to minor reform. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has proposed a modest plan that would give judges some discretion, and initiated a bold plan that will offer treatment in lieu of prison to carefully screened, non-violent, drug-addicted criminals. On Friday, Pataki granted clemency to: � Donna Charles, 41, who was sentenced in Queens County Supreme Court to a 17-year-to-life term for first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. � Leah Bundy, 32, who is serving a 15-year-to-life term for first, second, third and fourth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and third-degree possession of a weapon stemming from a 1991 conviction in New York County Supreme Court. � Migdalia Martinez, 34, who was convicted in Onondaga County of first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to 15-years-to-life. � Melita Oliveira, 57, who is doing 15-years-to-life for a first-degree possession charge out of Queens County. � Terrence Stevens, 34, who was convicted of first-degree possession and second-degree conspiracy in Erie County. In a statement announcing the commutations, Pataki said the individuals “have served long sentences and have used their prison time constructively.” Those granted clemency will be considered by the Parole Board for release in mid-January.

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