Published: June 8, 2004

The New York Times



ALBANY, June 7 - New York's top officials have agreed for several years that the state's Rockefeller-era drug laws are too harsh, but their efforts to overhaul them appeared to founder yet again Monday when talks broke down without an agreement.

The state's drug laws are among the toughest in the nation, and there is widespread agreement here that the long sentences they force judges to mete out have clogged the prisons at great cost without stemming drug abuse or drug-related crime. But for years the State Legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki have failed to agree on how to shorten the sentences and when and how to offer drug treatment instead of prison.

Last year, all sides briefly thought that they had a deal, but it unraveled mysteriously in the middle of the night. This year the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate took the rare step of forming a conference committee to try to iron out their differences on the laws. But after nearing agreement on many important areas, the committee ended its sixth meeting here on Monday afternoon with no general agreement on what to do and no plans to meet again.

Democrats on the committee asked to continue meeting, arguing that they were close to a compromise, but Republicans left without agreeing to more meetings, charging that the Democrats had been too inflexible. Two Republican Senate officials said they were unlikely to reconvene the conference committee, and added that the Senate might go ahead and pass a bill on its own without the Assembly's agreement.

That left the effort to rewrite the state's drug laws effectively dead for the year, or at least on life support with a poor prognosis, officials said.

The senators took a narrower view of their mission, saying that they wanted to shorten the sentences that are doled out to people convicted of the most serious drug charges. The Assembly agreed, but had a much broader series of changes they wanted to make: they wanted to shorten the sentences more significantly for lower-level offenders, and to give judges the option to sentence offenders to treatment instead of prison.

Assembly members were unwilling to agree to only part of what they wanted, for fear it would undo their leverage to get the Senate to agree to a broader overhaul.

A group of women, many of them with sons serving long prison sentences for drug offenses, sat in the hearing room. They listened as lawmakers debated whether to keep talking and whether they should change drug laws that were harsh but had not actually been passed during Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller's administration.

"It looks like they're playing games,'' said Elaine Bartlett, 46, who was arrested in 1983 for selling four ounces of cocaine and spent 16 years behind bars as a first-time drug offender. She is the subject of a new book, "'Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), that helped rekindle the debate this year.

Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat and co-chairman of the conference committee, urged his colleagues in the Senate to keep talking, saying it was better to negotiate in public in a conference committee than behind closed doors.

He alluded to last year's failed negotiations, when the so-called "three men in a room" who control the state - Governor Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno - met behind closed doors with a fourth man, Russell Simmons, a founder of Def Jam records, to try to reach an agreement.

"This process is so vital and important, so it doesn't go back to three men in a room, or three men in a room with a mogul, or however that process seemed to have taken place last year,'' Mr. Aubry said. "What it ought to be is us, in a public place, discussing this and resolving this."

But senators complained that the Assembly, by holding out for more changes, was failing to sign off on the areas they all agreed on. And they said that time was running out in this legislative session, which is scheduled to end on June 22.State Senator David A. Paterson, who leads the Democratic minority in the Senate, wondered aloud at the meeting what other pressing business there was. "I was actually wondering what we were going to do here for the rest of the week,'' he said.

One group of advocates pushing for change is blaming the Senate for the inaction. The group, called Mothers of the New York Disappeared, has taken out full-page ads in Spanish newspapers directed at New York City Republicans in the State Senate who are seen as vulnerable this fall, when the state's legislators face re-election."We're like Sisyphus,'' said Randy Credico, an organizer of the group. "This is seven years in a row.'

©2004 The New York Times