'Draconian' Drug Laws? Spare Us The Hysteria! 

'Draconian' Drug Laws? Spare Us The Hysteria! 
Posted by FoM on March 14, 1999 at 05:52:32 PT

 The civil-liberties crowd is bound to be up in arms over word that Gov. Pataki reportedly is pulling back from his longstanding promise to overturn the 1973 drug laws passed by his GOP predecessor, Nelson Rockefeller. 
Pataki is right not to jump on the nullification bandwagon. A closer look at the myths surrounding these "draconian" laws shows why. The statutes provide for mandatory minimum sentences. For years, critics have claimed that this condemns thousands of first-time drug users to prison for the rest of their lives, often for possession of only the tiniest amounts of narcotics. But the actual statistics tell a far different story. (They usually do.) First-time minor offenders? In fact, of the 22,000 nonviolent drug offenders in state prisons last year, more than half had been convicted of other crimes as well. According to Katherine Lapp, Pataki's top criminal-justice adviser, 29 percent had been convicted of illegally using weapons; 15 percent were convicted of robbery; 9 percent for assault and 6 percent of burglary. In fact, state officials contend, of all Rockefeller-law convicts, only 13 had no prior arrest record before being busted for drugs. And fewer than 700 of all Rocky-law prisoners were convicted of possession for personal use - as opposed to actual drug trafficking. So much for the argument that New York's 73,000-inmate system is overcrowded because of the Rockefeller laws. And tearing up the statutes is hardly the only way to show some mercy. The Pataki administration, in fact, has set up some early-release programs - deciding on a case-by-case basis after careful evaluation. Pataki also favors some limited changes in the laws. For one, he may propose reducing the mandatory minimum sentence, now 15 years, in possession cases involving small drug quantities. But even those changes should only be enacted if the Democratic-controlled Assembly adopts the governor's call to end parole for all offenders, violent or non-violent. And they should be undertaken only in concert with comprehensive reform of the juvenile-justice system. The emotion drummed up by the campaign to repeal the Rockefeller laws is so strong that two of the most liberal members of the state Court of Appeals have actually overstepped the judicial bounds - outrageously, in our view - and publicly denounced the statutes. By all rights, this public display of bias obliges them to recuse themselves from any further cases involving the laws. For all the aggressive PR campaign being waged by the criminal-rights lobby, simply repealing the Rockefeller laws "would be contrary to public safety," says Lapp. The sad - but honest - fact is that "the overwhelming majority of drug offenders in our prison system have earned their way into the system," she says. 'Nuff said. Unless the Assembly is ready to deal, of course.
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