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More states roll back mandatory drug sentences

The move this week by New York, the pioneer of tough laws, reflects concern about prison overcrowding and 'fairness.'

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New York's dramatic move this week to roll back its mandatory drug laws is symbolic of a growing movement in dozens of states to rethink how they deal with nonviolent drug offenders.

From California to New Jersey, lawmakers either are considering or have already taken steps to reduce sentences, replace prison time with drug treatment, and return some discretion to judges.

The movement is being driven by the desire to ease overcrowding in prisons and concern about the fairness of mandatory sentences. While not everyone agrees with the tilt, even some conservatives have joined the reformers, arguing that more needs to be done than just being tough on crime.

The New York move may be the most important, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. It was the first state in the nation to usher in tough mandatory-minimum drug laws more than 30 years ago.

It was also one of the first where reformers started working to overturn them, arguing the laws designed to net drug kingpins were instead snaring low-level offenders and locking them away, sometimes for life. Critics faulted them for bloating prison populations and unfairly targeting blacks and Hispanics. Conservatives countered that the get-tough laws helped bring down crime rates.

After a heated 12-year battle, the state legislature voted this week to roll back some of those mandatory sentences. In doing so, it became the 22nd state in recent years to reassess or change its drug laws. Some, like Michigan, did away with mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain felons. Others, like New Jersey, have set up a commission to study changes.


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