By Howard Koplowitz
State legislators’ efforts to overturn harsh drug laws that have given judges no choice but to send lowâˆ’level offenders to lengthy prison terms are receiving praise from southeast Queens elected officials, who said the guidelines have affected many area residents.
The soâˆ’called Rockefeller drug laws, named after former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who championed the bills, were put in place in the 1970s to punish both users and sellers of drugs. The laws created mandatory sentencing guidelines that left no discretion to judges.
“Many in my district have been captured by the Rockefeller drug laws,” said City Councilman Leroy Comrie (Dâˆ’St. Albans), including innocent victims — residents who were locked up and not aware they were riding in a car with someone who had drugs in their possession.
“It’s definitely a reform that’s long overdue,” Comrie said.
Parts of the laws were changed in 2004 that lessened some mandatory sentences for highâˆ’level offenders, but opponents said they did not go far enough.
The state Assembly passed reforms of the laws last week that would lessen sentences for lowâˆ’level offenders, end mandatory sentencing guidelines and give judges the option to send new offenders to drug treatment instead of jail, but Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (Dâˆ’St. Albans) has had difficulty getting the Senate to follow suit.
Smith spokesman Austin Shafran said Smith is attaching the reforms to the state budget bill in an effort to pass them.
“There are potentially thousands across the state who are affected” by the laws, Shafran said.
He said reforming the drug laws carries an economic incentive aside from being an ethical issue.
“The economic implications are also quite staggering,” Shafran said, noting that if the reforms are passed, it would mean less state money steered toward the prison system.
But Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (Dâˆ’Astoria) was critical of the reform effort, disputing the argument that changes to the law would affect minor offenders.
“One of the reasons the law was passed was because judges were putting drug dealers back on our streets over prosecutors’ objections and this action will bring us back to those days,” he said in a statement. “The soâˆ’called ‘Draconian’ mandatory minimums only apply to the most serious Aâˆ’1 felony, which can only be charged when someone sells or possesses $50,000 to $100,000 worth of drugs.”
“These drug dealers are not addicts who need treatment,” Vallone said. “They are criminals who bring death to our children.”
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by eâˆ’mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718âˆ’229âˆ’0300, Ext. 173.