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Clearing the Air

Albany County District Attorney Paul A. Clyne will discuss New York’s Rockefeller drug laws on an upcoming broadcast of the nationally syndicated radio talk show Fresh Air.

Clyne, a member of the New York State District Attorneys Association’s executive committee, said he was invited to the show to speak from a prosecutor’s perspective about a recently released book that is highly critical of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, often described as “arcane” and “draconian.” Critics say the book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, penned by Village Voice writer Jennifer Gonnerman, paints a chilling picture of how harshly the much-maligned drug laws can affect the lives of first-time offenders.

Life on the Outside recounts the arrest, trial and attempted reentry into society of Elaine Bartlett, a New York City woman arrested in Albany County in 1983 for selling 4 ounces of cocaine to undercover police officers. As a first-time offender convicted of an A-1 drug felony, Bartlett faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in jail. Under the Rockefeller statutes, she could have received life in prison but was sentenced to 20 at the judge’s discretion. But following a review of her case, Gov. George E. Pataki granted Bartlett clemency in 1999.

While many critics of the drug laws point to cases like Bartlett’s as evidence that the three-decades-old statutes need reform, Clyne said the case is actually an aberration. Of all criminal prosecutions tried under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, those similar to Bartlett’s account for only a handful, said Clyne, whose father sentenced Bartlett.

“There probably is some merit to the argument that mandatory sentencing for first-time, A-1 felonies may lead to unjust penalties in some cases, but that is not where the battleground [for reform] is being fought,” Clyne said. “That’s not where the reformers want to end.” Clyne noted a proposal in the Assembly’s drug-law-reform bill that would allow judges discretion when sentencing repeat felony offenders in drug cases. Clyne said this proposal would unfairly exempt repeat felony offenders from mandatory sentencing only in drug cases, when New York’s criminal law doles out such punishment for other non-drug-related repeat felony offenders.

“If the objective is to do something about A-1 felonies in drug cases, we can probably work something out,” Clyne said. “But if you want to say that drug cases should be treated differently than other felonies, than I think you’ve got a little bit of a problem there.”

But Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry (D-Queens), who sponsored a drug-law-reform bill that passed the state Assembly on April 14, said Clyne’s opinion represents the fundamental divergence of opinion over who should have discretion when sentencing convicted drug offenders.

“[Our bill] allows DAs first shot at discretion so that they’re not losing that opportunity,” Aubry said. “But the bill also allows the judges to have the ability to make a judgment about that case beyond what the DA might do. And, in the separation of powers between a judge and a district attorney, I think that is appropriate.”

Aubry said that any issues needing resolution—one of which will be judges’ discretion in sentencing drug cases—will be ironed out when Senate and Assembly committees meet next week to come up with a compromise bill to send to the governor.

The broadcast of Clyne’s interview can be heard locally on WAMC-FM (90.3 FM, Albany), but as of press time Wednesday, there was no specific date for the broadcast. Fresh Air can be heard weeknights on WAMC at 7 PM, and archives can be found on the show’s Web site, http://freshair.npr.org.

—Travis Durfee


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