ALBANY, N.Y. - New York Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders have agreed to ease drug laws that were once among the harshest in the nation and led a movement more than 30 years ago toward mandatory prison terms.
The agreement rolls back some of the sentencing provisions pushed through the Legislature in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who said they were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." The strictest provisions were removed in 2004.
Critics have long claimed the laws were racist and draconian, crowding prisons with people who would be better served with treatment. The planned changes would eliminate mandatory minimum terms for some low-level nonviolent drug felonies, which could cut the prison population by thousands.
"In additional to being unjust, these policies are ineffective," Paterson said Friday, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers and New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
Three decades have shown the core issue is often addiction, "a treatable illness," with far lower recidivism for those who get treatment instead of prison, the governor said.
At the same time, penalties will be toughened for drug kingpins and dealers who sell to children, Paterson said. The measure will be part of the state's budget package, he said. Lawmakers are trying to enact it by next week.
Across the nation, some states have been pushing sentencing reform to empty prisons and cut costs amid growing budget difficulties. New York's inmate total has already dropped by 10,000 in a decade to about 60,000, with proposals to close and consolidate prisons thwarted by lawmakers concerned about losing state jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, said Friday it costs the state $45,000 a year to house offenders and that the changes are expected to eventually reduce the state's prison population by more than 10,000 additional inmates, producing huge cost savings.
If the reforms are approved, about 1,500 inmates would be eligible to apply for resentencing but are not assured of shorter sentences, Paterson said.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose chamber passed a version of the legislation 98-46, said more effective residential drug treatment costs $15,000 or one-third the cost of prison.
"We're establishing a more just, more humane, more effective policy for the state of New York," he said.
Detailed legislative language wasn't released Friday. Advocates said some differences between the Assembly bill and governor's proposal were still being discussed.
The legislation would give judges discretion to sentence certain nonviolent and lower felony offenders - both first-time and repeat - to local jail, probation or a combination. Some could be sent to a six-month military-style shock camp or a prison-run drug-treatment facility.
Under current law, second possession of a half-gram of cocaine, a Class D felony, requires 3.5 years in prison, said Gabriel Sayegh, project director of the Drug Policy Alliance. The revisions would leave a sentence up to the judge.
One major subtext is race, since 90 percent of those locked up under New York's drugs laws are minorities, Sayegh said.
"There's no evidence anywhere to suggest that blacks and Latinos are the ones that are the predominant users or sellers of drugs that would justify the racial disparities in New York," he said. "This is the most pernicious aspect to us."
In "exceptional circumstances," judges could approve prejudgment diversion drug-abuse programs and dismiss charges, said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction.
Lippman said the judiciary's experience "shows increasing judicial discretion and expanding opportunities for treatment works."
Senate Democrats said the initial cost for expanded drug treatment programs isn't yet known, but federal stimulus money is available for it, and over time the change should save money.
Republicans said the changes would protect drug dealers and release criminals into the community. They also argued they should not be included as part of the budget vote. They said the maneuver ties the hands of lawmakers, and also gives political cover to those who choose to go along with the wishes of Democratic leaders.
"There's only one purpose, that is to coddle the criminals," said Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican.
Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, described the proposed reforms as a breakthrough but said they would still leave some harsh provisions intact. He said there are about 12,000 drug offenders in state prison, and he said 35 to 45 percent would have been eligible for judicial diversion under the proposed reforms.
"The Rockefeller drug laws, for better or worse, were the granddaddy for mandatory sentencing laws," said Gangi, whose nonprofit organization monitors prisons. "They initiated, in effect, the movement ... that swept the country in the '70s, '80s and '90s."
Other states have also been adjusting their drug laws but many still have stiff mandatory minimum drug sentences, he said.
The U.S. has about 2.3 million people in prison or jail, up from 1.5 million in 1994, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1973, only about 300,000 people were locked up, Gangi said.
New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau said "there seems to be an emphasis on providing funds for treatment, and that is movement in right direction. But we have to look at these changes and make sure they protect the public, too."
Bridget Brennan, a New York City special narcotics prosecutor, said she is concerned about whether the changes "strike the proper balance between concern for the defendant and protection of the community."
"It seems to have a lot for the convicted defendant," she said. "It doesn't seem to have a lot for the community."
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he also opposes the proposal. "It threatens to reverse the progress we have made in suppressing crime, especially now during a period of economic turmoil," he said.