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Arrest of Columbia Univ. Students Will Test N.Y.’s Reformed Rockefeller Laws

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The December arrest and prosecution of five students at Columbia University for drug-dealing will put recent changes to the state’s tough drug laws to the test, the Associated Press reported Jan. 30.

All of the students have pleaded not guilty, but attorneys for two of the five students said they plan to ask the court to divert their clients to a specialty drug court rather than go to prison. Their clients, they say, became dealers to fund their own drug habits.

Observers say the Columbia case will be a high-profile test of revisions made in 2009 to the state’s so-called Rockefeller laws, named after Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor who pushed them through the legislature in 1973. The 2009 changes eased or eliminated long-standing mandatory sentencing restrictions for drug charges, andencouraged treatment and other alternatives to incarceration.

The Columbia case is “probably the case that’s going to cause light to be shed on what these new laws mean: When diversion is appropriate, and what the Legislature intended when it cut back so drastically the Rockefeller laws,” said Marc Agnifilo, one of the students’ lawyers.

Opponents of the laws, the Associated Press reported, have long said they were “draconian and racist and filled prisons with people who needed treatment, not incarceration.”

For the students to qualify for treatment, they must prove that their alleged crimes were rooted in addiction. But because they are college students of comparative privilege, the case is raising awkward questions about how and when the newly-revised laws should be applied.

State Rep. Jeffrion Aubry, a Democrat from Queens who supported the changes to the Rockefeller laws, wondered what the case might say about who would get the benefit of the doubt.  Just because the college students’ education and backgrounds might suggest they would do well in treatment, “are we to then look at those who are less privileged in our society and may have more difficulties, and punish them more harshly, when (the students’) options were clearly more extensive?” he said. “It’s a complex issue.”

State Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican who opposed the changes to the Rockefeller laws, asked, “I think you really have to take a close look at this, and is this really what we meant by a second chance?”

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