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In a few sentences 29 pages into his 34-page State of the State address, New York Governor George Pataki on Wednesday set the stage for what could finally lead to an overhaul of New York’s uniquely harsh drug statutes. “In the coming weeks,” the governor said in his annual speech to a joint session of the Legislature, “I will send you legislation that will dramatically reform New York’s Rockefeller drug laws.” Although the governor has in the past articulated a willingness to tinker with the Rockefeller laws, focusing on the issue in his State of the State message and promising to come forward with a specific plan for reform almost automatically nudges the long-simmering issue to the legislative forefront. The legislation that Pataki will propose shortly will likely begin serious discussions with the legislative leadership. State lawmakers in both houses and in both major political parties agreed Wednesday that, for the first time in a generation, drug law reform is truly approaching priority status. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who controls the lower house, sat stoically behind the governor throughout the speech. Only once did the speaker respond with anything approaching vigorous applause when the governor promised to reform the drug laws. Later, Silver called for a “more sensible drug policy” that includes better treatment options for non-violent offenders. Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican who runs the upper house, said the time is ripe to take a hard look at mandatory minimums. “There are many mandatory sentences still on the books that appear presently to be unfair,” Bruno said at a press conference following the State of the State. “I think we have to focus as much on rehab as committing, especially with first-time offenders.” In his previous six State of the State messages, Pataki has tended to stress a handful of broad themes, coupled with just a few specific proposals that he typically pursues aggressively and successfully. It appears that Rockefeller drug law reform is now in that latter category. Senator Neil D. Breslin, a Democrat from Albany County, said he is optimistic that reform is on the horizon. “There’s not nearly as many issues this year to deal with, and I think the Rockefeller drug laws have moved up in priority and become a focal point. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something [happen] early in the session,” Breslin said. HARSH LEGACY 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. Experts generally agree that the laws have achieved little except contribute to a 500 percent increase in the state prison population. In his speech Wednesday, Pataki said that the Rockefeller drug laws, “however well intentioned,” are fundamentally flawed in key respects, and “out of step with both the times and the complexities of drug addiction.” Less than two weeks ago, the governor commuted the sentences of five non-violent convicts serving mandatory minimums of 15-years-to-life under the Rockefeller laws. Nearly all of the total of 23 convicts granted clemency by the governor were serving time for drug crimes. The laws were controversial from the start. In fact, Governor Rockefeller said when his proposals were enacted that he doubted they would achieve the goal of curbing drug crimes, adding that he simply did not know what else to do. Today, there are proven alternatives, such as treatment, that were not available in the early 1970s. Many states have gone that route. In New York, however, reform efforts have been stymied repeatedly. For several years, the GOP-controlled Senate was unwilling to budge, even though the Republican governor was openly expressing reservations about the effectiveness and fairness of the drug laws. Then, when the Republicans came on board last year, the Democrats who control the Assembly balked, fearful of being labeled soft on crime in an election year. Senator Dale M. Volker, a law-and-order western New York Republican who has in the past questioned the wisdom of scrapping the Rockefeller laws, agreed that reform is in the air. “I’ve been saying all along that this is the year something will probably happen,” Volker said. “It’s not an election year and it will be a lot easier for the New York City people to do it. My colleagues in the Assembly tend to feel that an initiative like this has to start with the governor, and I agree with that.” Details on the Governor’s proposals will emerge in two weeks when he submits his budget. GOVERNOR’S AGENDA Reform, however, will almost certainly carry a price, and a question remains as to how much the Assembly Democrats are willing to pay. Much of the criminal justice package that Pataki outlined in the State of the State address may be a tough sell to the liberal and moderate groups in the Legislature. In addition to, or perhaps in exchange for, “dramatic” reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, r Pataki proposed: � The elimination of parole for all felons. � The elimination of the statute of limitations for rape, sexual assault and other violent felonies. � Mandatory criminal background checks for all nursing home and home care employees. � An expansion of the DNA database to include all convicts. � Tougher gun control laws. � Emergency financial assistance to help battered women and their children relocate. � Legislation that would allow the state to administratively suspend a lawyer’s or doctor’s license if he or she neglects to pay child support. However, Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, a Democrat from Buffalo and an influential member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, suggested that the governor may contaminate his proposal with a poison pill if he ties Rockefeller drug law reform to ending parole. Meanwhile, Eve said, the governor and the Legislature are under pressure from many powerful religious forces, including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and Jewish groups, to drastically alter or even outright abolish the Rockefeller drug laws. There is little chance that the laws will be abolished, and most observers expect the governor to propose something akin to affording judges wider discretion to part with the mandatory minimums required under the statute.

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