A hard time for a hard line

After 30 years, have America's toughest drug laws served their time?

Three decades ago Thursday, New York became the first state in the nation to mandate harsh prison sentences for all drug offenders - 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics.

Armed with what they saw as a tough new weapon in the "war on drugs," dozens of other states and the federal government rushed to put in place their own versions of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws.

Proponents credited them with helping to reduce crime rates in the 1990s. But over the years, the laws also drew sharp criticisms: Enforcement rarely hit kingpins, netting mainly small-time drug runners and users, critics said. Many judges protested their inability to recommend treatment or lighter sentences for lesser offenders.

By 1998, the nation's prison population was three times its 1980 level. Studies were showing shorter sentences, judicial discretion, and treatment to be cheaper, more effective options. More than a dozen states repealed or reformed their Rockefeller laws.

Today, New York and California alone retain their mandatory minimums. Opponents, from inmates' families to state politicians, would like to see them fall. "In 1973, I sponsored the Rockefeller drug laws, which have been a well-documented failure," said John Dunne, a former New York senator, in a TV commercial last year urging reform.

In fact, New York's Governor George Pataki has proposed reducing some sentences and mandating treatment for some first-time, nonviolent offenders. Though critics say these changes don't go far enough, they could mean that the Rockefeller laws won't last to see their next big anniversary.

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