Thursday, October 14, 2010

New York State Tries Another Commission

Sentencing commissions come in all shapes and sizes. Some have enduring impact and become an integral part of the criminal justice system in a given jurisdiction. Others fail to find a foothold, issue a few recommendations, and fade away.

New York State is somewhat hard to categorize on this continuum. The state has already had the kind of commission that goes away. Former Gov. Elliot Spitzer appointed a study commission in March 2007, which duly issued a detailed report with many recommendations in 2009.

Now the state is trying to revive some of those ideas again. The harsh Rockefeller drug laws of 40 years ago, with many lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, remain largely in place. At the same time, with a host of other offenses, the problem is not rigidity but uncertainty. The interdeterminate sentencing ranges for numerous offenses lead to a lack of transparency in sentencing.

With these disparate elements, the sentencing system is complicated, confusing, and downright confounding. In one word, a mess.

Enter Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., and Judge Barry Kamins, the Administrative Judge of State Supreme Court, Kings County, Criminal Term. They will be the co-chairs of a new reform commission. Striving for greater impact than its predecessor, this commission will carry the word Permanent right there in its name: The New York State Permanent Sentencing Commission.

When you call something permanent, is that because you're serious about it? Or is it really more like wishful thinking?

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