Division of Criminal Justice Services

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John Caher, (518) 457-8415 or (518) 225-5240 (cell); john.caher@dcjs.ny.gov
Janine Kava, (518) 457-8828 or (518) 275-5508 (cell); janine.kava@dcjs.ny.gov
For immediate release: 12 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009

Full Report (pdf)

Sentencing Commission Calls for Drug Law Reform
Panel also recommends determinate sentencing, graduated sanctions for parole violators

A bi-partisan panel that spent nearly two years studying New York State’s sentencing statutes today called for further reforms to the state’s drug laws and provided the Governor, Legislature and Judiciary with several different options for historic reform.
The Commission on Sentencing Reform agreed on five major principles of drug law reform:

  • Community-based drug treatment, especially when required in a criminal justice setting where the offender faces clearly defined sanctions for program failure, works and should be an available option in every region of the state.
  • The state’s network of existing diversion programs and drug courts has been effective for thousands of drug-addicted offenders, and any new diversion model must be structured so as not to undermine these programs.
  • New York should adopt a comprehensive plan to provide statewide access to substance abuse treatment programs. 
  • New York must continue to reserve costly prison resources for high-risk offenders and make greater use of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders while not jeopardizing the state’s significant gains in public safety.
  • While New York has a large network of successful drug treatment courts and prosecutor-based diversion programs (such as DTAP – “Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison), these programs are not always made available to deserving offenders in need of treatment. The result is a “hit-or-miss” system that leaves many non-violent, drug-addicted offenders ─ and particularly persons of color – without access to this potentially life-changing alternative. To help close this gap, the Commission supports the adoption in statute of a uniform statewide drug diversion model.  

The Commission considered several different alternatives for achieving those objectives and included five different options for reform.

Under one of the proposals, the “judicial diversion” model, judges would have discretion to divert certain addicted, non-violent first- and second-felony drug offenders into treatment programs rather than prison. The Commission noted that if this model had been in place in 2006, approximately 3,000 offenders – 89 percent of them African American or Hispanic – might have been diverted from prison and instead steered toward treatment.

Other options are: the Court Approved Drug Abuse Treatment (CADAT) model that is part of a comprehensive drug reform bill pending in both houses of the Legislature; judicial diversion, but only with the consent of the prosecutor; and two variations of a proposal that would allow first-time Class B drug felons to receive a probation or local jail sentence in lieu of a one-year state prison term.

Denise E. O’Donnell, chair of the Commission and Deputy Secretary for Public Safety, said all of the five proposals have benefits and drawbacks that the Legislature should take into account before implementing drug law reform.

“The Commission has heard from the prosecution, the defense, and the judiciary,” Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said. “We have solicited advice from advocates and renowned experts from around the nation. We held public hearings in New York City, Albany and Buffalo. We formed focus groups. We studied drug courts and drug diversion programs around the state and visited drug treatment facilities and New York State’s prisons in an effort to determine which approaches are most successful at ending the cycle of addiction and incarceration.

“I believe our report provides Governor Paterson and the Legislature with the balanced, objective and evidence-based information they need to make informed decisions about the future of New York’s drug laws,” Deputy Secretary O’Donnell added.

The 11-member Sentencing Commission, which was established by Executive Order in March 2007 to perform a comprehensive review of New York’s sentencing statutes, also recommended:

  • Adopting a largely “determinate” sentencing system to promote greater uniformity, fairness and truth-in-sentencing. Currently, New York utilizes a hybrid of “determinate” sentences where the court imposes a fixed sentence, and “indeterminate” sentences where the court imposes a minimum and maximum term and the Parole Board decides when the offender is actually released. Under a determinate sentencing system, defendants, crime victims, judges and the public have a clear understanding of how long an offender will actually spend behind bars. The Commission reviewed more than two decades of sentences that had been imposed through the indeterminate system and used that data to construct a proposed range of sentences for particular offenses.
  • A comprehensive system of graduated responses, which would allow parole officers throughout the state to respond quickly and proportionately to technical parole violations. Since incarceration is an expensive and, often, unnecessary response to parole violations, the Commission recommends expanded use of “graduated sanctions” – such as curfews, electronic monitoring, increased reporting – coupled with use of evidence-based risk assessments to identify parolees who pose the greatest risk to public safety.
  • Expanding effective and cost-efficient “shock incarceration” and “merit time” initiatives that reduce recidivism and reserve costly prison space for the most dangerous offenders.
  • Enhancing the rights of crime victims. The Commission recommends moving all of the various victim’s rights statutes into a single article of law, or cross-referencing to a single article, so that victims, judges and practitioners can readily ascertain the rights and benefits that may be available. Additionally, the Commission recommends enhancing victim’s rights training requirements for prosecutors and judges, as well as new laws to enhance the ability of victims to collect restitution.
  • Establishing a permanent sentencing commission. Over the past 40 years, portions of New York’s sentencing statutes have been amended and altered countless times, resulting in an overly complex, Byzantine structure replete with the potential for injustice. The Commission recommends the establishment of a permanent body of experts to advise the Executive and Legislative branches on proposed legislation.

Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the “Sentencing Commission has performed a valuable service, at a critical time in the state’s history.”

“By focusing squarely on the connection between public safety and sentencing policy, the Commission has provided a roadmap that will guide the state during difficult fiscal times,” President Travis said. “The Commission’s recommendations, if followed, will bring clarity to our patchwork quilt of accumulated sentencing reforms, improve reentry outcomes, and support more rational uses of our prisons and our parole system.”

Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said the report is “the product of an extraordinary effort by an extraordinary group of professionals.”

“This comprehensive report reflects the wide diversity of experience represented on the Commission, and the seriousness with which every member approached this very difficult and time-consuming mission,” Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said. “Although we come from different areas, different professions and different backgrounds, our overarching goals were identical – justice, fairness and public safety. I believe that, with this report, we have met that goal.”
Also on the Commission were: Anthony Bergamo, Chairman, Federal Law Enforcement Foundation, Inc.; Brian Fischer, Commissioner, New York State Department of Correctional Services;  Michael C. Green, Monroe County District Attorney; Joseph R. Lentol, member of the New York State Assembly; Michael P. McDermott, O’Connell and Aronowitz in Albany; Judge Juanita Bing Newton, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives; Felix Rosa; Executive Director, New York State Division of Parole; Eric T. Schneiderman, member of the New York State Senate; Tina Marie Stanford, Chair, New York State Crime Victims Board; and Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., of Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer in Manhattan

“A lot of talented people put a lot of work into this report, which I believe will serve as a positive stepping stone for the legislature as we consider reforms to our state’s costly ─ and at times overly-punitive ─ criminal justice system,” said Senator Schneiderman, the new chair of the Senate Codes Committee. “I am especially heartened by the fact that the Commission is recommending by nearly unanimous agreement that judges be given the power to divert drug-addicted offenders to treatment, even without prosecutorial consent.”

Added Karen Carpenter-Palumbo, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services: “I applaud the Governor and the Sentencing Commission for recognizing addiction is a chronic illness that is better to treat than to incarcerate. We know that 72 percent of state parolees have a substance abuse problem and effective treatment is the best way to help them return to their communities, not to prison.

“OASAS is proud to partner with the Governor and Legislature on insuring that appropriate treatment is available to those individuals who can be diverted from State prison to our not-for-profit system of care,” she added. “New York State is a national leader in diversion programs, such as drug courts, and the action of this Commission once again puts New York in the forefront.”

Commissioner Fischer said the “shock incarceration” and “merit time proposals would build upon effective and cost efficient programs already being utilized by the Department of Correctional Services.

“Expanding eligibility for shock incarceration and creating limited credit time for good behavior and enhanced program participation during prison are sound, common-sense ideas based upon many years of practical experience in what works best,” Commissioner Fischer said.

“Shock has saved state taxpayers nearly $1.3 billion directly over two decades through reduced need for prison space, in addition to lowering recidivism by better preparing its participants to return to society,” he added. “Credit time would build on our very successful merit time program by providing incentives that have been shown not only to help in the rehabilitative process for offenders but also to make our correctional facilities safer and to enhance public safety.”

Added Ms. Stanford, Chair of the Crime Victims Board: “I am pleased to note that victims’ rights and concerns were studied and considered as part of the extensive process of reviewing sentencing in New York.  The final product reflects fairness and forward thinking in an effort to share practical suggestions and best practices to achieve just results.”

Mr. Vance said that the “Commission’s report provides sound and bold recommendations to reform New York’s complex, sometimes unfair and often incomprehensible sentencing laws. We hope our work will be a roadmap to a more fair and effective criminal justice system for all of us.”