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Here comes the bus 

Poor People United's Charles Kellum calls Rochester's winter cold "a natural disaster."

Last year, prompted by PPU, Monroe County came up with the idea for emergency shelter nights: when the weather is particularly cold, the homeless are allowed into shelters without admission restrictions and without curfews. But according to Kellum, those emergency nights aren't effective enough.

"We found that most of the homeless would only get one or two nights out of a week," he says. PPU set out to do something on its own. The group applied to agencies all around the country for donations and grant money to build a shelter. They got $6,000 from The Dominican Sisters in Chicago.

"We didn't get a lot of support from Rochesterians in our efforts," Kellum says. "And we ended up with only $6,000. With that we bought the bus."

The bus --- a converted school bus with propane heat and bunk beds --- will serve as a warming station. It can sleep 10 people and will run seven nights a week during the winter. And though the bus is a mobile unit, Kellum says PPU hopes to establish a specific spot in the city where the bus can regularly be found.

Poor People United still wants to build a shelter. But the group's main concern is with the roots of homelessness.

"A shelter is not a real solution for the homeless problem," Kellum says. "It's treating the symptom of a different problem. And the deeper problem is poverty."

In the meantime, folks in need won't have to freeze.

PPU still needs volunteers who can handle 12-hour shifts. The group needs drivers with CDLs, and it needs blankets and money for operating expenses.

For more information, to volunteer, or to donate, call Poor People United of Metro Justice at 325-2560.

--- Frank De Blase

Still tough on drugs

It's not real reform.

That's how many critics are viewing state lawmakers' vote last week to modify the draconian Rockefeller drug laws.

The laws, passed in the 1970s, are some of the most stringent in the nation, imprisoning for years thousands of New Yorkers --- many of them people who possessed small amounts of drugs and had committed no violent crime. The laws have packed New York's prisons and driven up criminal-justice costs.

The laws' problems, and their costs, have been discussed for much of the past 30 years. But legislators, predominantly the Republican-dominated state senate, have failed to do much. On December 7, in a hurried session, the senate and assembly softened the Rockefeller laws. Governor Pataki has said he'll sign the legislation.

Among other things, the new law reduces the sentences for drug possession and sale. Under the old law, a first-time offender could be sentenced to between 15 years and life. That's been lowered to 8-to-20 years. And legislators increased the amount of drugs an offender must possess to be sentenced to prison.

But in a letter to the New York Times on Sunday, a prominent critic noted that New York will continue to be tough on drug offenders. "The harsh aspects of these laws are still on the books," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the watchdog group the Correctional Association of New York. Among Gangi's concerns: "Prison terms, though reduced, remain unduly long, meaning that thousands of minor drug offenders will still be incarcerated for excessive lengths of time."

The legislature did not reform one of the most serious flaws in the Rockefeller laws: Judges have no discretion in sentencing convicted drug offenders. "It doesn't matter whether the offender is a big dealer or a small-time drug offender," says Rochesterian Clare Regan, editor of the Judicial Process Commission's newsletter. For instance, judges can not take into account the difference between a major dealer and an addict who sells a small quantity of drugs to feed his habit.

Even people whose sole involvement is transporting drugs --- often women who have been threatened by dealers --- receive severe sentences.

Only a small percentage of the people imprisoned for drug offenses are major drug dealers, says Regan. "They're not getting the biggies."

And there is a racial factor: "94 percent of the people in New York prisons for sales and possession are African American and Hispanic," says Regan.

While legislature leaders bragged that the reform "emphasizes drug treatment," it provides no increased funding for treatment.

Legislature leaders insist that their action last week is just a first step. But some of the critics aren't so sure. It has taken years, they say, to get this modest change in the Rockefeller laws. Legislators opposed to real reform may use last week's action to defuse the push for bigger changes.

Worries Clare Regan: "I'm afraid they will say, 'OK, we corrected it,' and they won't keep working on it."

Visions of ferries, street meat

Rochester city council ushers in the holidays with a couple of notable objectives for its December 21 meeting.

Of course, what's bound to attract the most attention is the fast ferry. Though there's nothing official listed on council's agenda at press time, it's expected that Mayor Bill Johnson will have his business proposal for public ownership and operation of the ferry up for council approval. Since there's been little support for Johnson's initial vision of creating a state-run public authority to purchase the ship, he's been working on an alternative that would require the approval of council only. The mayor is expected to announce his alternative in the days leading up to council's meeting. In the meantime, council has hired a consulting firm, TranSystems, to review the city's business plan for ferry operations, and those results are due December 20. TranSystems conducted a similar review of CATS' ferry plan in 2001.

Then there's street meat. Council will be voting on legislation designed to reign in the ever-expanding street vending scene found downtown and beyond. Basically, the city clerk's office, which licenses all vendors in Rochester, would like to charge all stand-alone vendors $600 for annually renewable licenses. And, in order to cut down on late-night noise, loitering, and littering, it would like to prohibit the operation of vending carts from midnight to 5 a.m. Hear that? It just might be the sound of thousands of intoxicated stomachs growling.

City council meets December 21 in council chambers on the third floor of City Hall, 30 Church Street, beginning at 7 p.m. Be warned: This could be a long one. 428-7538.

Gov. Spitzer?

It's official: he's running for governor.

As he makes the transition from crusading against Wall Street corruption to the hunt for New York's top job, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is honing his rhetoric about reform in Albany. After an election marked by popular outrage against some of the Capitol's worst bad-governance practices, Spitzer's challenge is to transfer his public image of a white-collar crime fighter and defender of the little guy from the courtroom to the campaign trail.

One key interest group got a sneak preview of that shift in its early stages here in Rochester last week; Spitzer delivered the keynote address at the statewide convention of the New York Farm Bureau at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.

The Farm Bureau has been a proponent of good-government practices in recent years, and Spitzer's message about boosting government accountability seemed to fall on receptive ears; his denunciation of unfunded mandates earned a lengthy round of applause.

"Accountability is important," Spitzer told the delegates, and not just in the private sector, where he's earned his reputation: "The issue of accountability is even more important to me when it comes to accountability in government, because I'm part of government and if government doesn't function properly I feel responsible; I feel as though we are letting out constituents down, we are letting you down, we are not doing our job."

Among the reforms Spitzer listed on his agenda were probing state authorities for abuses and creating a non-partisan, independent budget office or using the state comptroller's office to perform that function.

"We can't even agree about how much money we have to spend," says Spitzer, noting that the governor and each house of the legislature put out competing reports about the state's revenue stream.

Spitzer also slipped in a veiled attack on Albany's notorious "three-men-in-a-room" style of coordinating legislation. He called for conference committees --- not the leaders of each house --- to hammer out differences in Senate and Assembly versions of a bill, "so that it isn't just midnight in a closet somewhere people getting together and agreeing without any public airing of views."

Death in Albany

This December marks the first month since December of 1991 that no prisoner will be executed in the US.

That number reflects a general drop-off in the number of executions in the last few years. Local anti-death penalty activist Clare Regan says that's because recent events have shaken public opinion on the issue, including the 116 death row inmates who've been exonerated nationwide.

"People are a little leery now of sentencing people to death when they know that innocent people have been sentenced to death and probably executed," she says. "[US Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor says she believes innocent people have been executed."

In fact, Regan points out, the high court is taking on more death penalty cases in recent years, another factor that may be driving the numbers down.

"I think that this is something that's happening nationwide; people are not interested in executing innocent people," she says.

Such feelings may find expression at two hearings on New York's death penalty law called by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The first is in New York City Wednesday (December 15), with a second January 25 in Albany.

"They've had so many people that have wanted to speak that they may have a third one. And it would be nice if they had it in Western New York," says Regan.

No plans have yet been made to send a group from Rochester to the hearings, says Regan.

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