40 Queens convicts could get out of prison early

By Michael Morton

“My son is the only thing I have,” said Norma Arenas, speaking by telephone from her apartment in the Bronx. “I don't know if I should get excited about this. I'm trying to keep myself as calm as possible.”Last week representatives of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice filed a motion with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown seeking to have Arenas' prison time reduced. The 41-year-old received a sentence of 15 years to life in prison in 1993 for selling a small amount of cocaine at a Jamaica subway repair yard to a co-worker, who was then caught reselling it to an undercover agent. Arenas was convicted of an A-1 offense, the most serious on the books under the strict drug laws signed by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the mid-1970s.For years reform advocates have criticized the laws as unduly harsh, particularly for first-time offenders, minorities and those at the bottom of the drug food chain. Finally in December the state Legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), that changed the laws. It was signed by Gov. George Pataki later that month and went into effect Jan. 13.The new law decreases the penalties for first-time offenders and those previously convicted of a non-violent offense. For instance, A-1 offenders now face between eight years and 20 years in prison, rather than 15 years to life. The possession thresholds for the felonies were also adjusted, with A-1 offenses rising from four ounces to eight ounces. While those already convicted of lower-level crimes will be eligible for work release and treatment programs under the new law, only the 446 current A-1 prisoners can apply for resentencing. Arenas, sent to Mt. McGregor in 1994, has already spent 10 years in prison, and the motion on his behalf was filed Jan. 19. His lawyer, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, president of the William Moses Kunstler Fund, said her client should receive a hearing date in a week or so. If granted, the hearing will be held before the original sentencing judge, or a proxy if the jurist no longer serves in Queens Supreme Court in Kew Gardens. As in other resentencing cases, the judge is expected to review the circumstances of the crime and the convict's behavior in prison. Norma Arenas said her son's arrest came as a shock since he served in the Air Force and did not have a prior record.Once the hearing is set, “from that point on it should go quickly,” Kunstler said. “We hope he gets out quickly.”Of the 446 A-1 inmates eligible for resentencing, Randy Credico, director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund, estimated 40 were from Queens. He said historically prosecutors in Queens have asked for the stiffest sentences permitted by the Rockefeller laws, with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown having resisted the laws' reform. “He's always been one who's resisted,” Credico said, describing Queens as a “nightmare.”Patrick Clark, a spokesman for DA Richard Brown, disputed that characterization.”The prosecutors in Queens temper justice with mercy,” he said. Already, several other motions have been filed with Brown for resentencing. “Each case will be individually reviewed on its merits, and where a sentence reduction is justified we will not oppose it,” Clark said.The first resentencing hearing in the borough was scheduled to take place in Queens Supreme Court Wednesday, with Stacy Johnson to appear before Judge Arthur Cooperman, the DA said.But while the changes to the Rockefeller laws allowed the A-1 offenders to apply for reduced sentences, current lower-level offenders' advocates who have sought to help were not included. Credico pointed out that they could have been better off selling or possessing larger amounts of drugs in order to qualify for A-1 offenses.”They just can't be retroactively applied to one segment,” he said of the changes.Advocates for reform have said the recent bill is but the first step in obtaining fuller sentencing discretion for judges.Reporter James DeWeese contributed to this report.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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