State leaders say deal reached on reforming drug laws - Catholic Courier

State leaders say deal reached on reforming drug laws

New York Gov. David Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver came together March 27 to announce they’d reached an agreement to enact sweeping reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“Obviously this is a step in the right direction, a new era in the state of New York,” Smith said. “Obviously we’re talking about outdated, ineffective laws that needed to be changed.”

The current drug laws were enacted in 1973 and named for then-New York Gov. and later U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who led the state from 1959 to 1973. Opponents — including the state’s Catholic bishops and their public-policy arm, the New York State Catholic Conference — have long criticized the laws for failing to discriminate between low-level addicts and high-level dealers, and failing to offer such incarceration alternatives as rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities.

Under the new agreement, which must be voted on by the Senate and Assembly before it becomes law, judges would have the option of sentencing certain drug offenders to treatment programs rather than incarceration. Previously judges had only been able to sentence offenders to treatment in lieu of incarceration if the prosecution agreed. At the same time, the penalties for drug kingpins and adults who sell drugs to children will be toughened, Paterson said during a March 27 news conference in Albany.

This agreement reflects society’s growing realization that drug abuse is not only a criminal issue, but also a health issue, he said.

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws … have been proven over three-and-a-half decades not to be serving justice. Drug abuse is an illness. Over and over in the last few years we’re learning that this is a treatable illness, and in order to establish the treatment we need a different approach,” Paterson said.

The recidivism rates among graduates of intense drug-treatment programs also are much lower than those among offenders who are incarcerated but not treated, he added.

Everyone wins with this agreement, Smith said, because not only does it provide treatment for addicts, but it also will save the state money in the long run. It costs $45,000 a year to house a single nonviolent offender in prison, he said.

“The cost of placing the offender in a residential drug-treatment facility … with all of the services attached is about one-third of that, $15,000,” Silver said.

All told, the agreement potentially may save the state a quarter of a billion dollars in the long run, Smith said. Much of the money used to initiate the program and pay down-payment costs for offenders’ treatment will be paid for by federal economic-stimulus funds, Paterson said.

“It’s an economic stimulant because if you divert people away from prison and treat their addiction, which is causing them to be there, you’re adding to the work force,” he explained.

Although the Senate and the Assembly have not yet voted on the legislation, both are likely to approve it soon, according to Dennis Poust, spokesperson for the Catholic conference.

“It looks as though all sides are on board. It appears that this should go through,” Poust said.

Richard Barnes, executive director of the Catholic conference, praised Paterson and the legislators who forged the reform agreement.

“Just as history links the name of Nelson Rockefeller with these well-intended but tragically destructive laws, let history recall that the leadership of David Paterson has righted this terrible wrong,” he said in a statement. “This issue has long been a top personal priority for him, and without his persistence and support, it is hard to imagine this outcome.”

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