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Changes to New York and Federal Drug Laws

February 26, 2010

New York recently relaxed harsh drug laws from the 1970s that required prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Under recent changes in state laws, hundreds of low-level drug offenders in New York prisons became eligible for shorter sentences or release. Pending federal legislation would also result in lesser penalties for crack cocaine offenders.

Newly Revised Rockefeller Drug Laws

In the early 1970s, New York legislators feared the drug problem was growing out of control. In 1973, New York enacted legislation that punished drug users and sellers with stiff mandatory sentences. The laws created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics. This is similar to the penalty for second-degree murder.

The statutes became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Critics argued that they criminalized what was mainly a public health problem and removed discretion from judges in sentencing.

New York Governor David Paterson and lawmakers agreed in April to revise the Rockefeller drug laws. The legislation became effective October 7. The changes allow some inmates to be resentenced and give judges discretion to send some new offenders to drug treatment or shock incarceration programs instead of prison.

Judges had been bound by a sentencing structure which mandated sentences of one year for possession of small amounts of heroin or cocaine. Judges may now divert some drug-addicted offenders convicted of nonviolent drug crimes to treatment. Penalties were increased for drug kingpins.

Pending Federal Bill: Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009

Pending federal legislation may soon equalize crack and powder cocaine sentencing statutes. Since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, there has been a huge disparity in the sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. These are different versions of the same drug.

In federal court, crack offenses trigger sentences 100 times greater than comparable powder cocaine crimes. While it takes 500 grams of cocaine to get a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, five grams of crack yields the same penalty.

Critics have condemned the 100-to-1 ratio for punishing street-corner crack peddlers more severely than major powder traffickers. However, the loudest complaint has been that the disproportionate penalties treat African-Americans unfairly. It is estimated that blacks account for 80 percent of those convicted of crack offenses. However, about 70 percent of powder offenders are white or Hispanic.

In July, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill would eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The legislation would decrease prison sentences and potential fines for crack cocaine users. If the bill becomes law, it is unclear whether changes would be retroactive to benefit those currently serving sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a drug offense, contact experienced defense attorneys at the Law Office of Mark J. Sacco, PLLC.

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