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Advocates for changes in the Rockefeller Drug Laws this week brought in a tough-on-crime Texas prosecutor to show how far New York has swerved from the national path in dealing with narcotics crimes. District Attorney John Bradley of Williamson County, a Republican who made clear he is no softy when it comes to criminal justice, carefully avoided any direct criticism of New York’s drug statutes. Nor did he make any recommendations on how New York might act. But he described for a Senate panel a reform effort that succeeded in Texas and offered some hints on the dynamics that provided a climate for change. Bradley appeared before the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings and symposiums designed to explore recipes for reform and ways to break the logjam in Albany on the issue. Virtually every top elected official in New York, including Republican Gov. George E. Pataki and Democratic leaders, agree that the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws should be drastically changed. But they cannot agree on the details, and there is every indication that this legislative session — like several before it — will end without action. A task force created by Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson, D-Manhattan, and co-chaired by Democratic Sens. Thomas A. Duane and Velmanette Montgomery, both of New York City, is struggling to renew interest in drug law reform. Part of their effort is focusing on the consensus that New York’s drug laws are much harsher and much less effective than virtually any other state’s, even states like Texas, where hard-line criminal justice policies are legendary. Bradley told the task force that Texas confronted many of the same issues percolating in New York in the late 1980s. He said prisons were so crowded with low-level drug offenders serving long mandatory sentences that murderers were being paroled to make room for addicts and dealers. “Our love of the long prison sentence had caught up with us,” he said. Yet only a fortuitous confluence of factors brought about change in Texas, Bradley said: a recognized crisis, a deadline to address the crisis and political will. Texas continues to take a hard line on criminals, he said, but revised sentencing laws, an emphasis on treatment for nonviolent offenders and an extraordinary degree of discretion afforded judges and juries have enabled Texas to implement a more effective system. “Texas is unique in that it permits the jury to decide punishment,” Bradley said. “Although a defendant may elect that a judge exercise the sentencing decision, the existence of the option for a jury decision maintains a healthy debate on the community’s options regarding proper punishment. It keeps judges honest. It also requires that the sentencing structure have a broad range.” SENTENCING DISCRETION None of the players in New York is talking about anything nearly as revolutionary as allowing juries to sentence drug offenders. But all of them are wrestling with the concept of discretion, mainly judicial versus prosecutorial discretion. District attorneys have a receptive audience in the governor’s office and the Republican Senate. They want to ensure that prosecutors decide, or at least have a veto power, over which defendants are diverted to treatment. Democrats in the Assembly, defense advocates and others insist that the judge should have final authority. So far, neither side has been willing to give in. “It may be,” Bradley warned New York lawmakers, “that there is not yet the proper combination of factors present for reform.” Several lawmakers and aides privately suspect Bradley is correct. But Paterson’s committee is struggling to find common ground before time runs out this session. Last month, Paterson proposed legislation to greatly expand probation alternatives for lower-level offenders and bring New York’s drug sentencing statutes more in line with the rest of the country. Possessing four ounces of cocaine or selling two ounces carries a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in New York. The judge must impose a prison term. No other state has mandatory minimums as high as New York’s, and most give judges the discretion to order probation instead of incarceration, according to a report commissioned by Paterson. “It is our belief that New York’s laws are completely and totally out of the mainstream of what is happening across the nation,” Sen. Duane said. “Like so many other things in New York state, the drug laws have become a political game. The sad, tragic part of this dysfunction that is Albany is that we continue to destroy people’s lives and their families through our inaction.”

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