ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders have agreed to ease drug laws that were once among the harshest in the nation and led a movement more than 30 years ago toward mandatory prison terms.
The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisions pushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight a drug-related “reign of terror.”
Critics have long claimed the laws were racist and draconian, crowding prisons with people who would be better served with treatment. Planned changes would eliminate mandatory minimum terms for some low-level nonviolent drug felonies, which could cut the prison population by thousands.
“In additional to being unjust, these policies are ineffective,” Paterson said Friday, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers.
Three decades have shown the core issue is often addiction, “a treatable illness,” with far lower recidivism for those who get treatment instead of prison, the governor said.
At the same time, penalties will be toughened for drug kingpins and dealers who sell to children, Paterson said. The measure will be part of the state’s budget package, he said. Lawmakers are trying to enact it by next week.
Across the nation, some states have been pushing sentencing reform to empty prisons and cut costs amid growing budget difficulties. New York’s inmate total has already dropped by 10,000 in a decade to about 60,000, with proposals to close and consolidate prisons thwarted by lawmakers concerned about losing state jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, said Friday it costs the state $45,000 a year to house offenders and that the changes are expected to eventually reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10,000 additional inmates, producing huge cost savings.
If the reforms are approved, about 1,500 inmates would be eligible to apply for resentencing but are not assured of shorter sentences, Paterson said.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose chamber passed a version of the legislation 98-46, said more effective residential drug treatment costs $15,000 or one-third the cost of prison.
“We’re establishing a more just, more humane, more effective policy for the state of New York,” he said.
Under current law, second possession of a half-gram of cocaine, a Class D felony, requires 3.5 years in prison, said Gabriel Sayegh, project director of the Drug Policy Alliance. The revisions would leave a sentence up to the judge.
One major subtext is race, since 90 percent of those locked up under New York’s drugs laws are minorities, Sayegh said.
“There’s no evidence anywhere to suggest that blacks and Latinos are the ones that are the predominant users or sellers of drugs that would justify the racial disparities in New York,” he said. “This is the most pernicious aspect to us.”