Study: More NYC defendants sent to treatment instead of prison after harsh drug laws reformed

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NEW YORK — More New York City residents arrested on felony drug charges are being sent to treatment instead of jail and prison since harsh state drug laws were reformed in 2009, but still only 1 in 5 eligible defendants is actually enrolled in a program, according to a new study released Tuesday.

Researchers at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice compared cases of people arrested on felony drug charges in 2008, before the laws were repealed, to similar cases in 2010. They found that while there was a 35 percent rise in the diversion rate after judges were freed from dolling out mandatory minimum sentences for certain felony drug charges, courts in the five boroughs still varied wildly in how well they screened eligible defendants for treatment instead of incarceration.

"To the extent that treatment's been expanded it's moving in the right direction," said Vera's Jim Parsons, the lead author of the federally funded study. "But only 1 in 5 of this eligible group is enrolling ... and it seems like there can be an expansion."

The so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws, 1970s-era tough sentencing provisions that resulted in an explosion of the state's prison population, were reformed in 2009 when then-Gov. David Paterson and state lawmakers reached an agreement for doing so.

Eligible cases for the study were those in which a defendant's charge and criminal history met the criteria of the law reforms. Of the defendant who qualified, 29 percent of those in the Bronx were sent to diversion instead of jail, 22 percent of those in Brooklyn and 10 percent of those in Manhattan, the report found.

When it did occur, diversion was associated with lower rates of inmates being re-incarcerated, according to the study. While 36 percent of those who got treatment from the 2010 group were rearrested within two years, that figure was 54 percent for the 2008 group sent to prison, probation or jail, according to the study.

While black and Hispanic defendants in the 2008 group were three times more likely than white defendants to go to prison for drug charges. However after the drug laws were appealed, that racial disparity — though still existent — shrunk, with black and Hispanics now twice as likely than whites to receive terms in prison by a judge, researchers said.

The study initially matched 14,410 pairs of felony drug cases from 2008 and 2010, then drastically narrowed the eligible sample size — to 2,410 cases in 2010 and 1,925 cases in 2008. The reduction was necessary because some defendants' charges wouldn't qualify them for diversion, many charges were downgraded after arrest and still other cases were dropped altogether before indictment.

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