NEW YORK — In what is seen to be a small, forced step forward, Gov. George Pataki signed into law Dec. 14 a bill that slightly modifies the state’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDL), which impose harsh penalties on people caught with specific amounts of illegal substances.

Though the new law does away with some of the harshest measures of the RDL, critics charge that it leaves intact a system that gives judges no discretion over sentencing and still imposes long prison terms for offenses that would lead to probation in other states.

While all of the law’s opponents are glad to see what they call a “first step forward,” most are still left frustrated. During the debate on the bill in the state Senate, Sen. Thomas K. Duane (D-Manhattan), one of the RDL’s most vocal opponents, asked, “This is it? After all this time, this is what comes to the floor? It would be an unbelievable stretch to call this Rockefeller drug reform.”

The RDL requires minimum sentences and gives judges no chance to consider mitigating factors, such as a person’s previous arrest record. Further, the laws only take drug possession into account, not the role a person plays in a given drug operation. A drug “mule” who carries drugs for a dealer is subject to a much higher sentence then the actual drug kingpin.

The RDL disproportionately affects racially and nationally oppressed people. Studies show that the majority of drug users are white. However, according to the National Urban League, African Americans and Latinos constitute 94 percent of those locked up on drug charges, even though they constitute just 12 percent of the state’s population. Seventy percent of those in prison come from just six New York City neighborhoods.

What the new bill mainly does is change the amount of time served in prison by those convicted for the worst offenses. It also slightly changes the definition of what the worst offenses are considered to be. The weight of any certain drug a person must possess to be considered “Type A” would be doubled, and the highest sentences would be reduced from 15 years to life in prison to eight to 20 years. Of about 18,300 people now in jail for drug violations, 400 will now be able to apply to have their sentences reduced.

According to a statement by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the new revisions “embrace the status quo” and could possibly “give political cover for apologists” of the RDL.

“Absent structural changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which requires restoring to judges the authority to order treatment as an alternative to sentencing,” says NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, “we will not have meaningful reform.”

The RDL has been a subject of heated public protest for over 10 years. Many say that even though the reforms are minor, they are significant in that they are the first step forward in a battle that is finally beginning to turn in favor of the opposition.

Gov. Pataki, who had actually been in favor of increasing penalties, and the pro-RDL section of the Legislature were forced to compromise their stance because of increasing public pressure. The work done by the “Drop the Rock Coalition” and the upset victory of Working Families Party-backed Democratic candidate for Albany Attorney General, David Soares — who ran on a platform mainly of opposition to the RDL — all contributed to the changes.

“My assessment is that [the change] was motivated by the shifting political landscape, represented by David Soares’s victory in Albany,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York’s (CANY), in an online interview. CANY coordinates the grassroots, statewide “Drop the Rock” coalition that has been campaigning for a decade to repeal the laws altogether. Drop the Rock is a diverse group, and includes the state NAACP as well as NYC NOW.

Robert Perry, the NYCLU’s legislative director, said that this was “a small first step” and that the public battle against the Rockefeller Drug Laws is still only beginning.