ALBANY — The 2009 revisions in the tough Rockefeller-era drug laws also apply to parolees, who can seek shorter sentences, New York’s highest court ruled Thursday.
The Court of Appeals, divided 5-to-2, upheld lower court rulings that Jarrod Brown was eligible for resentencing. Queens prosecutors argued that the amendments to the sentencing laws applied only to people actually in prison.
That law specifically applied to those convicted of a Class B felony and “in the custody of the department of correctional services.” Two years later, in 2011, lawmakers and the governor enacted budget legislation that merged the corrections department and the parole division into the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
The court majority ruled Thursday that state custody as defined under the drug law amendments of 2009 now includes parole, saying that’s consistent with the plain meaning of legal custody as well as legislative intent.
“The 2011 amendments were not purely budgetary or technical changes,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote of the statutory merger of the prisons and parole agencies. “The 2011 law emphasized ‘the evolution of the sentencing structure’ toward a ‘focus on re-entry.'”
“Finally, remedial statutes such as the Drug Law Reform Act should be interpreted broadly to accomplish their goals — in this case the reform of unduly harsh sentencing imposed under pre-2005 law,” Judge Lippman wrote. Judges Eugene Pigott, Jenny Rivera, Leslie Stein and Eugene Fahey agreed with him.
Brown was originally sentenced in 2002 to a sentence of six to 12 years in prison and three years’ post-release supervision for selling cocaine. He was imprisoned for nearly eight years. His sentence was reduced by a judge in 2012 to a seven-year prison term and three years supervision.
That set him free from both.
In her dissent, Judge Susan Read said the two former state agencies were restructured mainly to save money and streamline missions and shouldn’t be the basis for applying the earlier sentencing revisions to parolees in drug cases. That decision is up to the Legislature, she wrote.
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam agreed with Judge Read.
Legal Aid Society attorney David Crow, who represented Brown, said the ruling could conceivably affect 50 to 100 or even conceivably several hundred people on parole in drug cases, including a few whose motions were previously rejected by judges in the Bronx and Brooklyn. “They’d need to be in good standing on parole currently to make the application,” he said.
Queens prosecutors didn’t immediately reply to requests Thursday for comment.