JUSTICE SERVES UP ALTERNATIVES

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The state’s chief justice, Judith Kaye, has put forward a plan to broadly expand non-prison alternatives for second-time nonviolent inmates–but her proposal could be blocked by Albany legislators who have proven unwilling to reform the state’s mandatory sentencing laws.

Kaye’s plan is based on a long-awaited report by the Committee on Alternative Criminal Sanctions, headed by former Deputy Mayor Fritz Alexander. The report summarizes research showing that drug-criminal nonviolent felons are more likely to commit new crimes after having spent time in prison than when they are sentenced to alternative programs that include drug treatment.

Court officials delayed release of the report a year ago in the hope that Governor Pataki would sign on to its findings, according to Alexander committee member Susan Powers of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Although the plan could save the state millions, Pataki never agreed. Convincing the legislature will be as difficult, particularly at a time when some lawmakers are demanding money for new prisons.

Sentencing reform advocates say Justice Kaye is well-regarded by most Albany pols, “But she doesn’t have the political clout to get controversial legislation through,” opines Bob Gangi of the Correctional Association. “It’s up to folks like us to create the political context where it’s more likely to happen.” Even so, 1997 may be the time for reform, he adds. “There’s a political window of opportunity. The governor is not up for re-election, and he’s under pressure to deal with the expanding prison population.”