By Roger Stone

Smith: Will he punt on real reform?
In 2004, the New York State Legislature set about to reform the State's infamous Rockefeller drug laws. It passed the blandly titled Drug Law Reform Act, which was a profound achievement for Albany where gridlock is the legislature's defining characteristic. Despite its progressiveness however, the DLRA's shortcomings were glaring. Senator Tom Duane openly mocked the bill on the chamber floor. Even so, the Reform Act did provide some important relief from the wildly ridiculous drug sentences, but it was no secret that the DLRA failed to adopt those measures needed to ameliorate the austerity of the Rockefeller sentencing scheme. The bill sponsor's memorandum acknowledged as much: "Now that this important first step has been taken by the legislature, judicial discretion, expanded treatment options and additional sentencing changes should be adapted." Those changes have not surfaced since the law's passage, despite persistent political pressure from reform groups. Now, New York's Commission on Sentencing Reform, whose members include the new chairman to the powerful Senate Codes Committee Senator Eric Schneiderman and counsel Joe Amodeo, has issued a lukewarm report that examines New York's labyrinthine incarceration policies, including the lingering Rockefeller canker. The report regurgitates the need for "further reforms to ensure that drug-addicted non-violent felony offenders who are appropriate candidates for drug treatment are diverted from state prison," and recognizes that "tough mandatory minimum sentences... may be unduly harsh for first-time non-violent felony drug offenders," but in all, it comes up empty on Rockefeller reform. The Commission proudly tells us, "Contrary to public perception of the impact of the 2004 and 2005 drug law changes, the data indicate that the amendments have had a significant effect on drug sentencing policies in New York. Notably, a growing number of felony drug offenders have benefited from a reduction in the sentences imposed under the Rockefeller drug laws." What? Myriad reform groups have admonished -ad nauseam- that without the restoration of judicial discretion to the sentencing process, without the ability to sentence more addicts to treatment facilities, and without an even more drastic reduction in jail time for first-time nonviolent offenders, cruel punishment still prevails throughout the State. Where are these reforms? Veterans of the reform fight are also concerned about Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith's Deputy Counsel Keith St. John, described to the STONEzone by one State Senator as "a self-important Uncle Tom who thinks everyone should be impressed by his Cornell education." St. John is said to be lukewarm about Rockefeller Drug law reform. Democrats are now in charge in Albany. Two of the more stentorian voices of Rockefeller reform occupy the Governor's mansion and the Attorney General's office. No senator was more eloquent about the need for drug law reform than David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo displayed admirable fortitude when he called for outright repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws during his 2002 bid for governor. A real reform bill, sponsored by Reform Commission member Assemblyman Joe Lentol, has been floating around the Assembly while the Republicans were at the helm in the Senate. With the Democrats seemingly in perfect alignment, the hour for reform is nigh. In 2005, Andrew Cuomo wrote a compelling editorial for the Albany Times Union titled "Prison Inmates, Republican Constituents." In that piece, he railed against Governor Pataki's unwillingness to challenge New York's Republican Party interests in order to enact honest reform of the draconian drug laws. He pointed out that the population figures that determine Senate and Assembly districts include prison inmates, a policy whose beneficiaries just happen to be upstate Republicans in the districts where those inmates are counted as constituents. In fact, the very existence of seven upstate senate districts depends upon thousands of pseudo constituents behind bars who cannot vote for the legislators their numbers help send to Albany. Two of those seats belong to Mike Nozzolio and Dale Volker, both vociferous opponents of Rockefeller reform and former chairs of the very committees where Rockefeller reform bills went to die. Accordingly, Mr. Cuomo wrote, "It's simply not in the Republicans' political interests to support measures that would let those locked up under the old drug laws go free." It was the perfect cycle, one that generated and reinforced incumbency and power. The elephant in the reform room is the Upstate economy, of course. The Governor is on a fiscal war path, as he needs to be. Reform could cost jobs wholesale upstate. Oh the horror. The cotton industry took a hit when slavery ended, too.