Friday, December 01, 2006

Time to reform severe drug laws

Poughkeepsie Journal.Com Editorial

It seems everyone has their own "Day One" Wish is another one.......andy

It's difficult to dispute that lengthy mandatory sentences for violating drug laws are unduly harsh and fundamentally unfair. Yet the required sentencing guidelines continue, without significant change.
Recent election results could offer hope.
Congress, in the past, has failed to act on recommendations from a federal panel to make the sentencing guidelines more consistent. Federal law requires a five-year sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine. It would take 500 grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same penalty. Democrats are set to take control of both houses of Congress in January, and should use their newfound power to rectify this discrepancy.
New York has its own rigid sentencing requirements, known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Problems with the statutes have long been recognized and legislators have discussed substantial reforms. But only modest changes have been made to date.
The laws make no distinction between a drug kingpin and a young mother desperate for money who serves as a courier. Penalties can exceed those handed out to those guilty of violent felonies.
With his promise that "everything changes" on day one of his administration, Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer has raised hopes the state will address a number of lingering issues in New York. The drug laws need to be among them.
Use alternatives to prison
Too often in the state, first-time, nonviolent offenders end up receiving long sentences. Studies have shown many of them would be better off in drug treatment, which would improve their chances of becoming productive members of society and save taxpayers the cost of keeping them locked up in prison.
The key at both the state and federal level is to give judges more leeway in considering relevant information about each case before deciding on a sentence.
A federal judge who once served as a top drug policy adviser to President George H.W. Bush recently labeled "unconscionable" federal laws requiring significantly longer sentences for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine. U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton, who once pushed for the tougher penalties for crack, said the disparity also fosters a perception among minority communities that the court system is unfair.
Walton's comments came during an appearance before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for developing sentencing policy for the federal courts. He noted the federal law wasn't intended to target the poor or minorities. But it's clear that, both in New York and nationally, such laws have ended up doing just that.
Judges must be given the ability to use common sense when weighing sentences in these drug cases.

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