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Testimony Of New York State Senator Thomas K. Duane Before The New York State Commission On Sentencing Reform

 

I am New York State Senator Thomas K. Duane and I represent the 29th Senate District. From 2002-2006 I was the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Codes Committee -- which was the committee directly involved with the issue of criminal sentencing reform in the New York State Senate.

I would like to thank the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform for allowing me to present testimony today on the urgent need for sentencing reform -- especially on the issue of repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I believe that we have done very little in New York to reform these harsh and unnecessary drug laws.

In 2004, the New York State Legislature was facing incredible pressure by the public to eliminate the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This gave us a real opportunity to completely restructure our drug laws.

Tragically, the Legislature reached a poor compromise and passed laws in December of 2004 and August of 2005 that did very little in the way of Rockefeller Drug Law reform -- but it did have tragic consequences -- it completely took the momentum and incentive out of the Legislature to enact an actual and meaningful repeal of the laws.

The 2004 and 2005 legislation did nothing to eliminate the low-level first time non-violent class "B" offenses. In 2004 Senate Minority Leader David Paterson and I issued a report showing that we have the harshest laws in the country for low level B offenses. I have been a vocal advocate that until we enact legislation which provides meaningful reform for class "B" drug offenses, we have not done out jobs as legislators in the area of sentencing reform.

A look at current statistics proves that the legislation enacted in 2004 and 2005 provides little relief to the staggering numbers of people convicted under the Rockefeller drug laws:

* Notwithstanding the recent drug law modifications more people are sent to state prison for non-violent drug offenses in 2006 -- 6,039 and in 2005 -- 5,835 than in 2004 -- 5,657.

* There are over 13,900 drug offenders locked up in NYS prisons. This costs the State of New York $1.5 billion to construct the prisons to house the drug offenders. And operating offenses for confining them is over $510 million per year.

* In 2006, 36% of people sent to prison were drug offenders. In 1980 the figure was 11%

* About 39% of the drug offenders in New York State prisons, more than 5,400 people were locked up fro drug possession, as opposed to drug selling. It costs over $190 million to keep them in prison.

* Of all drug offenders in NYS prisons in 1999, 80% were never convicted of a felony.

* Nearly 54% of the drug offenders in NYS prisons were convicted of the lowest level drug felonies.

Further, there is no question that these laws a racially biased; studies show that the majority of persons who use and sell drugs in New York State and across the country are white. Yet African Americans and Latinos comprise 91% of drug offenders in New Yorkfs prisons. Whites make up only 8%.

The most effective tool to fight against drug abuse is treatment. Yet New York insists on locking up drug abusers. This is a detriment not only to the offender, but it costs the state a great deal. It costs $36,835 a year to keep a low level drug offender in prison, while it runs about $2,700-$4,500 a year for treatment. Yet we insist on continuing to incarcerate instead of educate. It makes no sense.

One of the biggest tragedies of the Rockefeller Drug laws in the plight of women who get caught up in these laws. In 2005 I held a hearing were we looked at the plight of women and the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The testimony was shocking:

* As of January 2007, 2,859 women were incarcerated in New York State prisons. 4.5% of the Statefs inmate population.

* From 1973 to 2007 the number of women in New York State prisons increased 645%.

* 84% of women sent to NYS prisons in 2006 were for non-violent offenses. As of January 2007, 33% were sent for non-violent drug offenses.

* 82% of women incarcerated in NYS prisons report having an alcohol or drug abuse problem prior to arrest.

* 32% of the women have no prior criminal record. And 60% lack a high school diploma.

* 74% of the women report being mothers. At least 5,600 children have mothers incarcerated in NYS prison system.

* 14% of the women report being HIV positive which is almost double the rate of reported male inmates (6.7%).

I also wish to address one of my biggest concerns, and one which often goes unmentioned, which is the need for solid offender re-entry programs. Many inmates that are sent to prison on low level drug offenses have substance abuse problems yet there is no integrated reentry program for them upon their release from prison. This leads to the natural consequence of recidivism. This is yet another sign that our drug laws are nonsensical.

In the Senate I have proposed legislation which would result in successful re-entry programs. I believe that re-entry programs must include:

* Initial judicial identification of the problem and a detail assessment of the offenders needs. A report must be made and issued to the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) addressing offender needs.

* DOCS must be funded to provide educational skill and treatment programs while the offender is incarcerated.

* Neighborhood-level supervision (parole officers located in the community working hand-in-hand with affected neighborhoods to access services

* Utilization of a full service delivery model which will include the following services: employment/vocational training; housing; treatment of substance abuse; mental health counseling.

* Program oversight and revocation authority exercised by re-entry judge whose job it is to maintain offender rehabilitation efforts.

Another serious problem across New York State related to the Rockefeller Drug laws is the lack of uniformity in enforcement. How much time you spend in prison on a low level drug offense, and the treatment you receive, varies wildly across the State. In addition to the incredible racial disparity which I outlined earlier, a low level drug offenderfs sentence depends a great deal on which county they are sentenced in. This needs to be changed -- geography should not play a role in sentencing.

I again want to thank the Commission for holding these hearings across the state. I believe that my testimony makes clear the urgent need to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. As the Legislature wastes time refusing to repeal these laws, more and more low lever drug offenders are being imprisoned. Families are ruined. This is wrong. I urge the Commission to make clear in your recommendations that legislation must be enacted quickly to address these problems.