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Queens DA urges keeping stiff drug laws

In the wake of Gov. George Pataki’s plan to soften the state’s Rockefeller drug laws enacted 28 years ago, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown — along with district attorneys across the state — urged city, state and federal legislators from the borough not to ease the drug laws.

Brown told the group of politicians at his annual legislative breakfast Friday that they need to “think long and hard” before they agree to change the laws.

Many reformers who oppose the laws view them as arcane and among the harshest in the country. The laws have been blamed for putting large numbers of people in state prisons for long sentences for minor drug offenses.

“Vigorous enforcement of our drug laws has played a significant role in the dramatic reduction of crime — particularly violent crime — in our city,” Brown said. “Drug dealing is big business and drug dealers use violence to protect their turf, intimidate witnesses, rob one another and punish those who threaten their livelihood.”

He said it would be a mistake to remove the drug laws, which he stressed have been used as tools by law enforcement officials to reduce violent crime in the borough’s neighborhoods.

“Those who seek reform would have us believe that our prisons are filled with small-time drug offenders who are locked up for 15 years or more,” Brown said. “But that is not the case.”

Brown argued that most drug offenders are in prison because they have repeatedly sold drugs, were caught with large quantities of drugs intended for sale or because of a prior drug conviction. He said they were not jailed for a small quantity because of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Of the roughly 70,000 people in jail across the state, more than 21,000 are locked up on drug convictions and about 4,200 of these are first-time offenders.

The new drug laws would lower the stiffest penalty for a nonviolent drug crime to 8 1/2 years to life, from the current 15 years to life. The laws would permit judges to send some nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of jail and would give them more discretion in handing out sentences.

The new laws would also allow some 500 prisoners to apply for sentence reduction.

Under Pataki’s proposed legislation, leaders of drug rings would be targeted and subjected to sentences of 15 years to life. The sentence for gun-toting offenders would be pushed from the current three years to five years.

Brown said 67 percent of drug felons in state prison are second-felony offenders and 86 percent are in the state penal system not for possession but for selling drugs or the intent to sell drugs.

“To the extent that the governor has expressed a willingness to allow the courts — through the appellate process— to review those rare cases in which first offenders are serving life sentences for possession only, the prosecutors are supportive,” Brown said. “But to go beyond that — to dismantle our drug and second-felony offender laws which have been so successful in lowering the level of violence in our society would be a serious mistake.”

Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis) said there would be fewer long-term prisoners for only drug possession, ultimately lowering the state’s prison population.

He said the money not spent on the prison system could be transferred and used to strengthen the criminal justice system.

“There is no direct correlation between small possession of drugs and violent crime,” Leffler said. “The way to deal with the problem is not to incarcerate but to treat. They are not violent criminals but addicts.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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