It’s the kind of fight that wouldn’t have seemed possible just ten years ago. The New York Daily News reports that right now the Democratic candidates vying to replace Andrew Cuomo as New York State Attorney General have started fighting over who can be “softest” on drugs:
Five otherwise intelligent people are competing to be the top prosecutor of a state that has seen a worrying uptick in violent crime, much of it drug-related.
Yet all they seem to argue about is who has fought harder to keep cocaine and heroin dealers out of prison and on the streets.
Okay, obviously Daily News writer Bill Hammond still thinks that the Rockefeller drug laws are not blatantly unfair and ineffective. Whatever. The important thing here is that five potential prosecutors are seemingly done with this simplistic approach to the drug problem, and the people of New York seem to be on board…
For as long as anyone can remember, you won state AG elections by claiming that you were the “toughest SOB” on the block, not the “most fair” or “most reasonable” or even “most effective.” People have always wanted their AGs to lock the bad guys in jail and throw away the key.
But right now people — at least people in the New York Democratic party — seem to be recognizing the failure of our so-called “war on drugs” and looking for alternatives. The pressure is so intense that at least one Democratic AG is apparently flip-flopping her position on the Rockefeller laws:
The loser is Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who took a perfectly sane stand against last year’s legislation – and now faces relentless bashing from [state Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan, Bronx)] and Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for the sin of dissenting from what has apparently become party orthodoxy.
Worse, Rice has waffled under fire, and now claims she actually supported Schneiderman’s bill all along – even though a letter she wrote criticizing the bill was quoted on the floor of the Senate by a Republican who voted no.
Progressives have been complaining about the Rockefeller drug laws for years, and they’ve enjoyed increasing success at getting the harshest provisions rolled back. But at the point when a prosecutor can get elected because they oppose the Rockefeller laws — well, that’s a real sea change.
Of course, we still don’t know if the state is ready for a more nuanced approach to drug offenses emanating from the Attorney General’s office. Even though it doesn’t always feel like it, we still nominally have a two-party system in this country:
[W]hen Rice and the rest of the District Attorneys Association opposed last year’s [drug reform] law – warning that it went too far – they were right.
Republican AG candidate Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island DA and then-president of the association, still stands by that sound position – and with the innocent New Yorkers terrorized by drug gangs.
With any major reform of our criminal laws, reasonable people will disagree. What’s really heartening about what’s happening in New York is that there is the opportunity to have a real debate about these issues. Then the people will get to vote on their preference. Instead of two candidates arguing over who can come down the hardest on drug offenders, we might (emphasis on “might”) have two competing concepts about the prosecutorial approach to drug punishment.
That’s exciting. That’s what elections are for.
For the last decade, the person in the NYAG’s office has been more concerned about running for Governor than being the top prosecutor in the state. But in 2011, it looks like New Yorkers will actually have to chose which prosecutor they like the best, instead of which governor-in-waiting they want to test drive.