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New York could eliminate ‘mandatory’ minimum sentences: What would that mean?

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  • Staff Report 

New York lawmakers are proposing a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for criminal offenses. The “Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act” would allow judges to use their discretion in determining an appropriate sentence based on the facts of an individual case. It would also eliminate New York’s two- and three-strike laws, which mandate a life sentence for three serious violent or drug-related felonies.

The proposed legislation comes 50 years after the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which imposed some of the harshest prison sentences in the nation for certain drug charges. The laws perpetuated poverty in low-income and minority communities, and though the number of people actually sentenced did not go up, prosecutors gained more discretion to threaten defendants with the possibility of harsh sentences.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Demond Meeks, would create a presumption against incarceration or require a hearing before any prison sentence can be imposed. Nearly 98% of convictions in New York are currently the result of guilty plea deals, and the legislation seeks to give judges more flexibility in sentencing. However, Republican Assemblyman John McGowan, a former prosecutor, argues that mandatory minimum sentences are meant to hold people accountable for their crimes and eliminating them altogether would have a negative impact on public safety.