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HEARING AIRS IDEAS FOR DRUG LAWS

The success of the Rockefeller drug laws of the mid-1970s, with their mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, was not the question Tuesday night during a public hearing in Erie County Legislature chambers. All concerned generally agreed that the laws have failed.

Speakers offered their suggestions for Gov. George E. Pataki's plans to reform the laws. Legislature Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples and Legislator George A. Holt Jr., both Buffalo Democrats, served as hosts for the hearing, attended by about 40 people.

Statutes enacted in 1973 under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller mandated prison sentences of 15 years to life in cases involving the sale of more than 2 ounces of cocaine or heroin or the possession of more than 4 ounces. Some advocates of reform, however, say too many low-level, nonviolent offenders got caught up in that net.

Those favoring reform include Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

"Chemical abuse is one of New York's leading public health problems," he said. "I believe that treatment and prevention will be the linchpin of any successful effort to reform our state's drug laws."

Pataki's proposal calls for softening mandatory sentences, expanding nonprison treatment of substance abusers and giving judges more discretion. On the other hand, he wants stiffer penalties for drug-trafficking kingpins, those who employ minors and those who sell drugs over the Internet.

Hoyt said he wants to deal with what Pataki's proposal lacks: funding for treatment of those people who will avoid jail. "I strongly believe that any reform . . . will be destined for failure unless we provide the necessary resources to help people leaving the criminal-justice system make productive lives for themselves," he said.

Hoyt has proposed a fund to support community-based services for offenders steered into treatment. "By reinvesting the savings (from prison costs) instead of simply sending it back into the general fund, my plan would spare counties the extraordinary burden of an unfunded mandate," he said.

Other speakers agreed that the savings could be applied toward more productive programs to help the local community and economy.

"I have lots of ideas to spend that reinvested money," quipped Deborah A. Merrifield, county commissioner of social services. They include drug courts, in which nonviolent drug addicts can avoid jail time by completing treatment. "They work," Merrifield said.

In February 1999, a departmental review of Buffalo City Drug Court, headed by Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., found that the savings totaled more than $7.2 million for the 136 clients (adult and children) involved, Merrifield said. Fifty-eight graduates, for example, no longer needed public assistance, food stamps or Medicaid, for an annual savings of $809,378.

Drug courts are not unique to this area -- or the United States, the judge noted. They also have been instituted in Canada, England and Australia.

Russell urged taking the program beyond the criminal-justice arena, to Family Court.

"Unless we begin to address addiction and the cycle of addiction, . . . are we really working to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood?" the judge asked.

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