More states roll back mandatory drug sentences

The move this week by New York, the pioneer of tough laws, reflects concern about prison overcrowding and 'fairness.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New York's dramatic move this week to roll back its mandatory drug laws is symbolic of a growing movement in dozens of states to rethink how they deal with nonviolent drug offenders.

From California to New Jersey, lawmakers either are considering or have already taken steps to reduce sentences, replace prison time with drug treatment, and return some discretion to judges.

The movement is being driven by the desire to ease overcrowding in prisons and concern about the fairness of mandatory sentences. While not everyone agrees with the tilt, even some conservatives have joined the reformers, arguing that more needs to be done than just being tough on crime.

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The New York move may be the most important, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. It was the first state in the nation to usher in tough mandatory-minimum drug laws more than 30 years ago.

It was also one of the first where reformers started working to overturn them, arguing the laws designed to net drug kingpins were instead snaring low-level offenders and locking them away, sometimes for life. Critics faulted them for bloating prison populations and unfairly targeting blacks and Hispanics. Conservatives countered that the get-tough laws helped bring down crime rates.

After a heated 12-year battle, the state legislature voted this week to roll back some of those mandatory sentences. In doing so, it became the 22nd state in recent years to reassess or change its drug laws. Some, like Michigan, did away with mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain felons. Others, like New Jersey, have set up a commission to study changes.

The move by New York lawmakers is "very good news," says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group in Washington. "They have been one of the most recalcitrant of states, and their penalties are some of the harshest. The states are the real laboratories on this issue, and they seem to be moving far ahead of the federal government."

Currently, a first-time class-A felony in New York - defined as possession of four ounces or more of a hard drug - would get an offender 15 years to life. Under the new law, a person would have to possess eight ounces or more to be categorized as a class-A felon, and the mandatory sentence was reduced to eight to 20 years.

Supporters of drug reform see the New York move as a turning point in the battle to replace mandatory minimums nationwide. But some think New York lawmakers did not go far enough in either reducing the length of mandatory sentences or in

returning discretion to judges. "It's a small but encouraging step," says Alan Rothstein of the New York bar association. "But we're also hopeful the legislature will turn to this issue again in the next session and make even more substantive changes."

Many conservatives still support mandatory minimums as key deterrents to drug crime. They also see them as a way to ensure uniformity in sentencing, avoiding having some judges hand out stiff jail terms and others lenient ones. But some also now support elements of the reform movement.

"My sense is that the country is coming to the conclusion that the levels of penalty are about right, and maybe even a little too harsh," says Paul Rosenzweig of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "I don't see people abandoning the deterrent, but trimming, assessing, and figuring out whether the marginal value of an additional three years in jail is worth it, or whether that money could be spent in more cost-effective ways."

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