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Last Minute Effort by NY Republicans, Prosecutors to Block Rockefeller Reform Is Dead in the Water

How the mighty have fallen! Until recently, opponents of drug law reform in New York were successful using fear-mongering and demagoguery.
 
 
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The losers in New York state's effort to reform its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, mainly district attorneys and Republican legislators, made a last-ditch effort this week to scuttle part of the reforms. But given a strong response from reform proponents, Gov. David Paterson (D), and Assembly Democrats, the effort appeared dead in the water as the week wound down.

The brouhaha erupted over a provision in the law that allows judges the discretion to conditionally seal some nonviolent conviction records when a person has completed drug treatment. The reason for the provision is simple: To make it possible for people who have successfully undergone treatment to be able to enter the workforce without having the albatross of their nonviolent, pre-treatment drug convictions hanging around their necks.

With the Rockefeller reform law set to go into effect next week, Senate Republican minority leader Dean Skelos headlined a Monday press conference to warn that allowing judges to seal the records of "dangerous criminals" was a threat to the safety of New Yorkers. "This is one that is potentially going to kill people if it's not repealed," said Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "This is about life and death."

"It's just mind-boggling in terms of the impact of this provision," said Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) the primary sponsor of the effort to undo the provision. "This change in our state drug laws defies all common sense because it would effectively wipe the slate clean for criminals who will face necessary criminal background checks for positions of confidence and public trust."

"It means someone convicted of selling drugs on a school yard could be hired as a teacher," Skelos added. "Someone caring for toddlers, someone running a crystal meth lab could be delivering medications to your grandmother at a nursing home. And an individual convicted of forgery or grand larceny could be handling your money at the bank or taking your application for a loan or credit card."

DAs also joined in the attack. "If you look at the list of jobs and licenses that you are going to be able to get without having your criminal drug activity revealed to a potential employer is remarkable," Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who heads the state's district attorneys' association, told the Ithaca Journal.

Sounds pretty scary, and that scare tactic worked, at least to some degree. Senate Democrats initially wavered, saying they might take up the issue. On Wednesday, Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), the Senate sponsor of the Rockefeller reform bill indicated he will try to delay the implementation of the record-sealing provision.

But on closer analysis, the Republicans' and the prosecutors' appeal to public safety appears threadbare, one might even say hypocritical, especially given that DAs have held the same power to seal conviction records for decades -- and have used it expansively with little scrutiny.

The new provision is much more transparent. Under this provision, a judge may order records to be conditionally sealed only after a person has successfully completed both a judicially-supervised drug treatment program and the court-imposed sentence for the offense, and after the judge considers, among other things, the circumstances and seriousness of the offense, the character of the defendant, his or her criminal history, and the impact of the sealing on public safety. A judge must also give the district attorney notice and an opportunity to be heard and may deny a sealing request even if the applicant has completed drug treatment.

Even while signaling he might be open to delay to discuss the provision, Schneiderman defended the bill. "A defendant should be able to go to a judge and say the prosecutor wouldn't do this for me," he said. "Now the judge can overrule the prosecutor," he added before going on to accuse the GOP of trying to "terrorize the citizenry."

 
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