It’s been two years since Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the nation’s drug czar under the Democratic Clinton administration, urged reform of the state’s harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws. During that time, much in the debate has changed, but one constant remains: The Rockefeller statutes are still on the books, as Draconian as ever, and still in need of urgent reform.
In 1999, Gen. McCaffrey found himself in an alliance with Gov. Pataki in urging reform, even though the governor dismissed the general’s position as politically motivated. In truth, the general was only calling for what Mr. Pataki himself had proposed — reform — while the leader of the Democratic Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver, was a surprise holdout, fearing reform might make his fellow Democrats appear soft on crime.
Much has changed in the interim. Now it is Mr. Silver who has come out for reforms that have gained Gen. McCaffrey’s support. The plan would give judges more discretion in sentencing and stress treatment as an alternative to incarceration. In the general’s view, this is the approach necessary to reverse the misguided Rockefeller Drug Laws that were “passed during a time of enormous fear, anxiety and lack of understanding of the issues.” They take a get-tough approach to drug crime by mandating a minimum sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces, or sale of two, of an illegal substance, even if it is a first offense.
That is not to say that Mr. Pataki has abandoned reform. To the contrary, he has advanced a package that also would provide for judicial discretion and treatment alternatives. But unlike the Assembly plan, the governor would not include Class B felons as eligible for treatment. Under the Assembly plan, drug offenders Class B down to E would be eligible.
The governor also proposes to strengthen laws on marijuana possession and distribution, claiming that present statutes are too lax. The sale, or attempted sale, of any amount of marijuana would be upgraded to a felony for some second offenses, while other marijuana felonies would draw longer sentences.
Mr. Pataki defends his position on ruling out treatment for Class B felonies on the grounds that the goal is to keep drug kingpins behind bars, just as the Rockefeller Drug Laws were supposed to do. That would be a credible position if only the Rockefeller laws had attained that goal. But they did not. As for marijuana, even some district attorneys, who oppose Rockefeller drug law reform, are mystified. Why crowd the jails with more low-level offenders if the goal of reform is to reduce the prison population by encouraging treatment as an option to incarceration?
Gen. McCaffrey’s views come at an opportune time. Despite the enthusiasm for drug law reform earlier this year, the issue has faded from the public consciousness and the prospects for passage do not seem as promising today as they were only a few months ago. But now with the former drug czar repeating the call to undo the damages of 28 years of failure, perhaps the governor and lawmakers on both sides will get serious about reaching a middle ground — one where an enlightened drug policy can replace one crafted in ignorance.