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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

New York's Governor David Paterson unveiled a landmark deal on Friday that would scrap most of his state's so-called Rockefeller drug laws. A growing chorus of critics say the system of mandatory prison sentences is just too harsh and too expensive.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: New York's drug laws have been controversial since they were first championed by Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller as part of the get tough on crime Movement that swept the country in the early '70s. Governor David Paterson, a Democrat, says that system was broken from the start, putting thousands of low-level drug abusers behind bars for years and then failing to treat their addictions.

Governor DAVID PATERSON (Democrat, New York): In addition to being unjust, these policies have been ineffective. They simply have not worked. They've only created a revolving door, whereby the offenders were mired in a cycle of arrest and abuse.

MANN: Lawmakers have been steadily chipping away at the Rockefeller laws for years, creating new drug offender courts and eliminating the most draconian sentences. But judges are still required to follow strict sentencing guidelines. And the deal Paterson hammered out with fellow Democrats this week restores a huge amount of flexibility.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who heads New York State's highest court, says the reforms were long overdue.

Judge JONATHAN LIPPMAN (New York Court of Appeals): Increasing judicial discretion and expanding opportunities for treatment work. Lives are saved and society benefits.

MANN: But this deal strips power from prosecutors, who say mandatory minimums help them fight crime in some of New York's toughest neighborhoods. Dan Donovan is D.A. in Rockland County and heads the State District Attorneys Association. He says these reforms could create a new kind of revolving door, one that puts addicts back on the streets. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Dan Donovan is D.A. in RICHMOND County.]

Mr. DAN DONOVAN (District Attorney, Richmond County, NY): Drugs are being sold in the lobbies of their housing developments or on the stoops of their building. We go in there and arrest some people. You know, in eight hours that person is back there.

MANN: But so far the steady erosion of Rockefeller laws hasn't meant more crime, and this deal maintains tough mandatory sentences for drug kingpins.

With New York's budget deficit expected to top $16 billion next year, lawmakers are also scrambling to save money. Malcolm Smith, who heads the State Senate's new Democratic majority, says the prison population could eventually be slashed by as many as 7,000 inmates.

State Senator MALCOLM SMITH (Democrat, New York): We know it costs about $45,000 a year to house one single non-violent low-level offender, and this will save close to a quarter of a billion dollars for the state of New York.

MANN: Governor Paterson says that tens of millions of dollars needed to launch new drug treatment programs will come from the federal stimulus package. These reforms are expected to pass New York's legislature next week.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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