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Chambers' arrest highlights need for further reforms

Robert Chambers spent 15 years in prison for the notorious murder of Jennifer Levin, whom he claimed he accidentally strangled during rough sex. Despite his horrific crime, Chambers was allowed to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter instead of second-degree murder and was sentenced to serve between five and 15 years in prison.

Now, 21 years later, Chambers has been arrested again, this time on charges of selling cocaine to undercover officers. He faces life in prison.

Those who remember his 1986 slaying case will have no sympathy for Chambers. What's most outrageous about this case, though, is that Chambers faces more time for a drug offense than he did for taking someone's life.

There are still about 14,000 individuals in New York's prisons who were sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. That's the case despite minor reforms by the State Legislature in 2004 and 2005 that slightly reduced the length of most drug sentences. Many of those incarcerated are nonviolent offenders serving longer sentences than people who commit rape or murder.

Take, for example, Ashley O'Donoghue, a first-time nonviolent offender who sold a small amount of drugs to two students at Hamilton College in Oneida County in 2003. The students worked out a deal for probation. O'Donoghue, however, is serving a seven- to 21-year prison sentence.

Even Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno admits drug law reform is unfinished, and that much more needs to be done. The reforms by the Legislature did not provide the needed relief for the vast majority of offenders. What they did accomplish was to reduce the longest sentences from 15 years to life to between eight and 20 years. The reforms also made some long-term drug offenders eligible for retroactive relief.
But the Legislature still hasn't provided funding to increase the availability of community-based drug treatment. It hasn't increased the power of judges to place addicts in treatment programs. Nor has the Legislature provided relief for the 4,000 class B drug felons.

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer recently put together a panel to study the disparity of sentencing guidelines in New York. One of the issues was the Rockefeller Drug Laws. But in its preliminary report, the commission failed even to mention reform of the Rockefeller Laws.
Denise O'Donnell, the commissioner of criminal justice services and chairwoman of the Commission on Sentencing Reform, said the issue would be addressed next time. But this is one issue that doesn't need any more study. It needs political will and action.

The sentencing commission will hold a public hearing Monday at the Public Library Auditorium in Buffalo. Many of the citizens affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws will attend. Their message to the commission will be this: This injustice needs to be fixed now, not "next time."

Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City.

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