Monday, April 19, 2010

One year later, N.Y. drug law change shows mixed results

ALBANY -- After 19 years in prison, Amir Amma served his time for two
nonviolent drug counts, a stretch as long as some murderers get. Now
free and pursuing a college degree, he says, "Crime is not an option."

Carlie Beltran also said he put trouble behind him after a crack cocaine
and gun possession conviction sent him to prison for more than seven
years, time he spent getting a high-school equivalency diploma, job
training and drug counseling. But less than four months after his
release, police said they found him carrying a loaded semiautomatic

Amma and Beltran were snared under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug
laws, nicknamed for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who signed them into law in
the 1970s. The laws required long sentences for possession and sale of
even small amounts of narcotics.

The two men are also among the first of nearly 300 to benefit from the
landmark easing a year ago of those laws -- a development that drew
impassioned supporters and doom-saying opponents like few issues ever to
hit Albany.

"The reality of what's happened a year later is not as good as the
defense had hoped and not as terrible as the prosecutors had feared,"
said attorney William Gibney of the Legal Aid Society in New York.

The new law eliminated some mandatory minimum prison terms, let hundreds
of nonviolent drug felons request shorter prison sentences and gave
judges more latitude to send offenders to treatment programs or county

New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said 72
inmates and parolees prosecuted by her office applied for resentencing,
with judges initially turning down 17 and granting 19 requests; others
were still under consideration.

Beltran is among two who have been re-arrested, the other on a drug
charge, and a third person was deported, she said.

Advocates of the reforms said relief was needed for the low-level
nonviolent people who just got caught up in drugs. But Brennan said many
such inmates had already been released, leaving more problematic
resentencing cases for judges to decide.

"As it played out, really, it was only the person with a substantial
criminal record, or a horrible disciplinary record while in prison, who
ended up being eligible," Brennan said. Her office opposed slightly more
than half the requests that were granted.

According to the Department of Correctional Services, 584 felons were
resentenced and released after 2004 revisions in the drug laws. By
December, 13 were back in prison for new crimes and 27 for parole
violations -- a recidivism rate of 7 percent.

The state's overall recidivism rate is much higher -- 41 percent --
according to 2006 through 2008 figures of the Department of Criminal
Justice Services. Most returned to prison for parole violations, with 11
percent for a new felony.

Amma, now 42, was convicted in Albany of two felonies for a drug sale
and for possession of 2 ounces of cocaine, which he still disputes. He's
back in Queens, living in his mother's small apartment with his
20-year-old son. He has another son just graduating from high school in
the Atlanta area. Parole restrictions may keep Amma from attending the

"I was involved in narcotics and stupid stuff," Amma said, who had a
prior arrest for selling marijuana. His co-defendants got much shorter
sentences. He said he refused to tell police anything, went to trial and
got 25 years to life. He has no convictions for violence, but
acknowledges a fight in prison and getting disciplined once for smoking
a joint, a mixed record that kept him from getting resentenced under the
prior changes.

He plans to finish college in social work and criminal justice. For now,
he's "chilling" and happy to be out.

Assistant Albany County District Attorney Sean Childs said his office
has probably participated in 25 to 35 drug resentencings in the past few
months, with three or four denied, and most applications coming directly
from inmates. He was not aware of any re-arrests.

"It was quite harsh," Childs said of Amma's original sentence.
Prosecutors supported his new sentence.

Beltran, on the other hand, was resentenced over prosecutors'
objections. They noted his 2002 conviction, which included carrying an
unloaded semiautomatic gun, and a record of write-ups for prison
disciplinary infractions including fighting and keeping a sharpened
toothbrush under his mattress.

"We argued that this was not the kind of person contemplated" by the
drug law changes, Brennan said.

Beltran's lawyer said he was exactly that kind of person: a
drug-and-alcohol user since age 10 who had never been convicted of
hurting anyone but himself.

"Mr. Beltran has finally come to grips with his drug problem" in prison,
attorney Laura Lieberman Cohen wrote in court papers.

Beltran, 29, was paroled shortly before a judge approved his bid to trim
his six- to 12-year sentence.

Arrested again in March, Beltran is now being held while facing both
state and federal weapons charges because of his prior conviction. He
has pleaded not guilty in the state case and hasn't yet entered a plea
in the federal case. He told a detective he was returning the gun to a
friend, according to a court complaint.

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