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Crime in Our Communities Task Force Holds Roundtable

Local Elected Officials, Community Figures Speak Out

On Oct. 22, the New York State Assembly Minority Task Force on Crime in Our Communities held a roundtable discussion at the Levittown Public Library to discuss various matters related to crime in Nassau County. The meeting was hosted by Assemblyman David G. McDonough (R-Merrick), co-chairman of the Assembly Minority Task Force, and co-headed by fellow state Assembly members Andrew Raia, Tom McKevitt and Joseph S. Saladino.

The Task Force on Crime in Our Communities was created in 2006 by the Assembly Minority Conference for the purpose of discussing crime-related matters with politicians and community leaders, gathering information and working to incorporate its findings into subsequent state legislation. “The Task Force on Crime in Our Communities was developed to learn how communities throughout New York State are working to keep their residents safe and secure,” reads a press release issued by the Task Force. “Task Force members are charged with discerning which programs are successful – and which aren’t – and reporting back to Albany about how the Legislature can support and encourage effective measures of crime prevention.”

The Oct. 22 meeting was one of a number of such stops on a statewide tour that the task force has been conducting this year. “Holding these discussions around the state allows us to get a localized perspective on the problems in each community,” said McDonough. “It is vitally important to talk to people directly and get recommendations on how to improve systems that are already in place, and to discover what else may be needed.”

Much of the focus of the meeting was on drug-related crimes in Nassau County. At the outset, McDonough raised the issue of the recent changes made to the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. So-called because they were signed into law by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were once considered among the toughest drug laws in the country, imposing lengthy mandatory prison sentences on convicted drug-related criminals. Current New York State Governor David A. Paterson, an admitted former marijuana and cocaine user who was once arrested for protesting the Rockefeller Drug Laws, has pushed for and approved legislation that alters or repeals many aspects of these laws.

While McDonough acknowledged that these laws had indeed been “rather Draconian in many ways,” he did express concern over what he called the “softening” of certain aspects of them. In particular, he focused on the decision to grant sole discretion for the sentencing of drug-related criminals to judges.

When asked for her thoughts on the drug law reforms, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she would “reserve judgment” on them until seeing how they bore out in practice. While she affirmed that she supports the notion of making treatment and counseling options available to drug users in place of mandatory prison sentences, she did acknowledge that she has concerns over the prospect of granting judges “too much discretion,” noting that a balanced approach is vital to any efficient judicial action on drug crimes.

“Anything that is extreme, you end up with a system that is flawed,” said Rice, adding that she hopes judges will exercise “rational thought” when handing down sentences and make every effort to distinguish between those drug users who are genuinely deserving of and would be well served by treatment options and those who are only seeking treatment as a means of avoiding jail time. She also discussed her own methods for addressing drug crimes, which includes a “go straight or go to jail” program that offers certain non-violent drug dealers the opportunity to avoid prison sentences if they agree not to continue their criminal activities; and those who fail to abide by this agreement could have their original charges held against them in addition to any new ones. Rice noted that out of who dealers have been offered and entered into this arrangement, nine have not yet been charged with any new crimes since.

Teri Corrigan, chief of the DA’s Office’s Street Narcotic and Gang Unit, echoed a similar sentiment as Rice, and added that judges should also distinguish between those drug dealers who are impelled to sell drugs to pay for their own addictions and those who simply choose to do so for financial gain.

Raia concurred, stating that providing treatment for dealers with genuine addictions could potentially “get them off the street, get them off the habit” and ultimately “get them away from dealing.”

Robert Lloyd, executive director of the Long Island Citizens for Community Values, expressed the most concern over the changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Recalling his own past as a heroin dealer in the 1970s, he noted that the initial institution of these laws “sent a wave of fear through the drug industry” and provided a powerful deterrent to many would-be drug users and dealers. Lloyd described his own incarceration under these laws and said it played a role in ultimately steering him away from his criminal activities and leading him to the new role he has now as a community leader and motivational speaker. He claimed that the recent changes to these laws, made in “a nonchalant way” as he put it, could be “dangerous.”

“There needs to be a cooperation with the district attorney and the judge,” Lloyd insisted. In general, he said that any changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws must be evaluated “thoroughly from both sides,” emphasizing the word “thoroughly,” which he claimed has not yet been done.

McDonough told Lloyd that he shared many of the same concerns as he did, but said that the advocates of the drug law reforms, who currently have the support of the majority in the state Assembly, have not been receptive to his or others’ objections.

At one point, Saladino straightforwardly asked that anyone in attendance who had at least some reservations about the changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws to please raise his or her hand. Everyone in attendance at that moment raised their hands.

The meeting was also used to address the recent rise of heroin use in and around Nassau County. “It’s a situation that has kind of crept up on us over some time,” said Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey, citing the drug’s growing accessibility and affordability as being among the leading causes of its proliferation. The police commissioner said heroin related crimes are now his “number one priority” as police commissioner.

Mulvey and others in attendance noted that most heroin users appeared to progress or “graduate” – as one speaker put it – from other forms of substance abuse to heroin. The most common progression, Mulvey said, appeared to be from alcohol and/or marijuana to pharmaceutical drugs and then to heroin, the reason being that each successive drug produces a similar but more extreme variation of the previous one’s “high.”

Police Inspector Paul Clark described drugs such as marijuana and pharmaceuticals as “gateway drugs” that opened the way to heroin use and denoted them as being at the root of the growing heroin problem. “Nobody intends to become a heroin addict – but it happens,” said Clark.

This point then segued into a discussion of the illegal sale and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs. The police inspector stated that keeping excess pharmaceuticals in a household with children is “akin to having a loaded firearm” and said that parents must take every precaution to make the drugs as inaccessible to children as possible.

McDonough and Raia both cited the tendency of doctors to over-prescribe medications as a contributing factor in pharmaceutical drug abuse, noting that an abundance of pharmaceuticals in households not only increases the likelihood that such drugs will fall into children’s hands but also creates a temptation for the patients or others to make a profit by selling them. Raia said he is in favor of legislation that will either require pharmacists to accept returns of prescribed drugs or set up “established locations” that allow people to turn in their pharmaceuticals.

“What I don’t understand,” he said, “is pharmacists are allowed to fill the prescriptions; why can’t they just take it all back and be done with it?”

Also discussed at the meeting was the response of schools to drug use among students. Westbury Village Trustee William Wise noted that many school districts in the past have been reluctant to involve police and draw public attention to drug-related incidents on school property out of concern for generating negative publicity for those districts.

Raia said that more districts need to continue to involve their students in anti-drug programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) beyond just elementary school, stating that a “continuity of message” is needed to improve the likelihood of deterring students from drug use.

Corrigan, however, stressed that schools should not and cannot bear the bulk of the burden of addressing drug use among students; rather, that is the responsibility of the students’ parents. This point was met with general agreement from the rest of the assembly.

In general, the assembly agreed that communities as a whole must dispel notions of certain forms of drug use, such as that of marijuana, as being trivial or relatively harmless and acknowledge the potential threats posed by them.

In addition to drugs, the assembly also discussed the rise of gangs and the growing threat of gang-related violence in Nassau County. Corrigian said that a major hindrance to the DA’s office’s efforts to successfully prosecute gang members has been the reluctance of victims and witnesses of gang-related crimes to testify, as they fear the threat of suffering retribution at the hands of other gang members. Corrigan argued in favor of legislation that would allow the DA’s Office to keep the identities of prosecution witnesses in gang crime cases secret until “the last possible second,” and suggested that witnesses should also be shielded from public viewing while testifying in much the same way that rape victims can be shielded from their attackers during sex crime trials.

There was also discussion given to sex crimes in Nassau County. McDonough said that the Task Force has proposed new legislation that would further inhibit sexual predators from soliciting children over the Internet, and has also been working to further educate parents on the dangers inherent in children’s online activities.

Saladino described the Assembly Republicans’ prior efforts to push legislation on civil confinement for convicted sex criminals through the state Assembly. Civil confinement, he explained, is a measure that allows the state to confine the most serious sex offenders in mental health facilities after their prison sentences have been served if they are still deemed a threat to society.

“This wouldn’t apply to the vast majority of sex offenders,” said Saladino. “Civil confinement only applies to the very worst of the worst; the kind of people who had Katie Beers locked in a dungeon below their home.”

Ultimately, the State Assembly did pass civil confinement legislation, but Saladino lamented that it only allowed a “watered down” version that does not perform nearly as efficiently as its sponsors had intended it to.

Lloyd rounded out this discussion by associating sex crimes with the prevalence of pornography in American society. “The common denominator [in the activities of sex criminals] is because we’ve allowed pornography to run rampant through our country,” he said. “Either on bookshelves, either in [the] Internet, either on the TV … And I think it’s time that we start looking at it and doing something about it.”

The meeting was adjourned after a little over two hours. In the end, the members of the Task Force expressed satisfaction over its outcome.

“Today’s discussion has allowed us to learn about the various tactics being employed to fight the growing drug problem in Nassau County,” said McKevitt. “We will take this information back to Albany and, as legislators, develop meaningful solutions to assist in deterring drug use in our communities.”

A number of other political and community figures from throughout Nassau County also attended and participated in the discussion, including Problem Oriented Police (POP) Officer Paul Lamonaca, Police Detective Lieutenant Peter Donahue, North Merrick School District Superintendent David Feller and Seaford School District Superintendent Thomas Markle.