Half Nelson


Yesterday the New York legislature finally got around to approving changes in the Rockefeller drug laws, which have set the standard for harsh mandatory sentences since 1973. The reforms are predictably modest. The penalty for first-time offenders convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin or cocaine, for instance, will now be eight to 20 years rather than 15 years to life. And the law still requires prison time for lower-level, nonviolent first-time offenders. The New York Times reports:

A study by the Democrats in the State Senate found that New York imposed the harshest penalties in the nation for low-level drug offenders. It found that 32 states, including Texas and Florida, offer probation to nonviolent offenders who sell small amounts of drugs, and that New York was the only state that required more than three years in prison for such offenses.

Still, the changes, which may allow hundreds of prisoners to gain their freedom, are better than nothing–except to the extent that they relieve pressure for more-serious reforms.