Just Say Maybe?

Politicians Posture but Rockefeller Reforms Still Elusive

According to activists, the current reform proposals are unacceptable because they exclude groups of drug offenders from judicial diversion—court-ordered treatment instead of prison—and the limitations set on such diversions. There are also issues concerning judicial discretion, the role of prosecutors, and retroactive application. Advocacy groups have also been highly critical of reforms that significantly address only a limited class of offenses in terms of the revision of sentencing parameters and that do nothing about others.

Credico related the story of a woman who is featured in Mothers of the Disappeared's new ad campaign and was in their meetings with the governor, who has two family members in jail under the sentencing laws. Their cases vividly illustrate the shortcomings of the current proposals.

"Her two sons were in prison, one is still there, and her nephew is in prison," said Credico. "Her nephew is serving 15-to-life for a sale of over two ounces of cocaine. Her son is doing 15-to-30 for a $20 bag. Now the difference here is, the governor's bill would help out the guy doing 15-to-life, her nephew, but it wouldn't help her son. So the nephew could conceivably get out immediately while her son would have to continue to do the minimum of his sentence."

"We met with them," said Credico of talks with the governor and other politicians. "They gave us an offer that we refused and [Pataki] certainly doesn't want to be hammered in terms of the hardship horror stories that keep coming out."

When questioned about the lack of legislative activity, Charles Carrier, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, told the Voice: "We've been very public over the last several months in trying to do as much as we could to get it accomplished this year, because our feeling was this was a real opportunity this year to try to reach an agreement on this subject. . . . I just know that the mandatory sentencing, judicial discretion, the role of the district attorneys, these are all parts of the discussion."

After the assembly passed a strong reform bill in mid June, disagreements with the governor and the senate on a compromise bill led to the current stalemate. However, there is speculation that the entire situation may be smoke-and-mirror "politricks" and some question whether or not some lawmakers are truly engaged in fair play.

"The senate is more conservative than the assembly," explained Credico. "The governor's bill doesn't go far enough. If it went any further, I suppose the senate could knock it down and not bring it up on the floor.

"Pretty much [Senate Majority Leader] Joe Bruno gives the governor what he wants. So the governor can't hide behind that. There's a lot of talk about that the governor would tell Bruno, 'Look, we're going to come up with this great package; don't bring it up on the senate floor and I could say that I tried.' And so the governor is aware that people think that he might do that already."

Rodriguez has a different perspective. "In our conversations with the governor's office and the assembly," said Rodriguez, "I think that there's some serious intent to make something happen to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, but people need to come closer to the middle and there needs to be more negotiation and it's unfortunate that we haven't had that yet because it's just time for it."

However, with Cuomo's new initiative, going through the motions of reform without any significant movement may no longer suffice. "He's the first statewide mainstream politician who has urged repeal of the laws rather than some kind of reform," said Gangi of Cuomo. "When you have a credible and mainstream candidate for governor calling for repeal, it's important for two reasons. It undermines the argument that repeal is an unrealistic position and also it puts some pressure on McCall and the governor to take stronger positions for reform."

For the most part, aside from scattered allusions, until Cuomo's call for repeal, the drug laws were marginalized as a campaign issue with the most significant items coming from columnists and editorials. Considering that statewide elections are right around the corner, the lack of focus on the landmark issue is yet another trait indicative of the bizarre nature of New York politics. With these recent developments, it's reasonable to speculate that the whispers of negotiations will increase a few decibels and legislation may actually materialize.

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