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Gov. George E. Pataki has taken a giant step toward much-needed reform of one of the nation's toughest and most unworkable drug laws. His promise to press for changes in the Rockefeller drug laws, which were enacted in the early 1970s, is encouraging and should get support from Republicans and Democrats in the State Legislature.

The governor in 1999 put forth a much weaker proposal to revamp the drug laws but ran into strong Democratic opposition in the Assembly, where the greatest support for reform could have been expected. The Democrats, however, feared that they would be labeled as being soft on crime and shied away from supporting the governor.

Now, however, the stronger proposal from Pataki, who has strong anti-crime credentials, makes it easier for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to support drug-law reform and get his troops to join the effort. Also, the expected criticism from some quarters has been muted by the fact that some Republicans who helped pass the Rockefeller drug laws have formed a group dedicated to loosening them.

Silver now says he welcomes the governor's effort for reform, although he doesn't feel it goes far enough. Buffalo's Sam Hoyt, who chairs the Assembly's Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, is optimistic that the Legislature will pass a reform measure this year.

Another Buffalo area legislator, Dale M. Volker, who chairs the Senate Codes Committee, cautions about going too far with changes, saying, "we've got to be careful." Volker is a highly respected legislator whose views on criminal justice legislation are often solicited by fellow legislators. Joseph Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, says he and the governor "share a very similar view."

The Rockefeller drug laws went into effect in 1973, and since then the state's prison population has gone from about 13,000 to more than 70,000. More than 21,000 inmates are now serving time for drug convictions, with 70 percent of those for nonviolent crimes. The cost of incarceration is estimated at some $30,000 a year for each prisoner, and the governor's office estimates that his proposals would divert about 5,500 inmates from prison through lesser sentences and treatment alternatives.

The governor's proposal softens some mandatory sentences. But he also wisely includes provisions to toughen the drug laws involving weapons, drug kingpins and the use of minors in drug trafficking. Strict laws in those areas must be strengthened, not weakened.

The most highly criticized of all the 1973 drug laws imposes a mandatory prison sentence of at least 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine or for sale of two ounces or more. The law is applicable even for first offenders.

Pataki would lower the minimum sentences for these offenses for those who have no history of violent crimes. Those who have no other criminal records could get 10 years to life and would be permitted to appeal to lower their sentences to 8 1/3 years to life. Those with nonviolent prior convictions would face 12 years to life at trial or 10 years to life on appeal.

Another key element of the Pataki proposal gives judges the discretion to bypass mandatory prison terms for low and mid-level drug offenders in favor of drug treatment. Under current law, felony drug offenders with prior convictions must go to prison.

Judges also would get the discretionary power to sentence second-time, nonviolent drug offenders for all but the most serious charges to residential drug treatment centers for six months or more, rather than to prison for as long as four years. The governor also is proposing some reductions in mandatory penalties for repeat offenders and some additional latitude for judges in setting prison sentences.

The Legislature's changes in the Pataki proposals should concentrate on giving judges even more discretion at sentencing, so that they could consider the circumstances of the crime and the offender's background. That discretion would enable them to sentence a user to treatment instead of jail. But there also is a need, as Volker notes, for caution in not going too far. Some restrictions should be built into the legislation to curb judicial discretion.

Concern has been expressed about the need to increase state funding for the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse for drug treatment centers. These facilities will have to be expanded when treatment becomes more of an alternative to imprisonment. The Corrections Department budget should be cut as the prison population declines, with the dollars shifted to treatment centers.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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