Today is the day that the hard-fought changes to the Rockefeller-era Drug Laws go into effect, and lawyers for hundreds of low-level drug offenders in New York prisons are preparing petitions for shortened sentences or release. Once among the harshest in the nation, the laws were enacted more than 30 years ago under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and required mandatory prison terms for a variety of drug crimes.

Critics have long argued that the laws put a disproportionate number of minorities behind bars for years for minor offenses, turning low-level offenders and users into career criminals. The revisions signed into law by Governor Paterson in April give judges discretion to place addicted first-time drug offenders into alcohol and substance abuse treatment, and makes treatment available to the non-violent addicted offenders who commit a range of other crimes.

As the bill was poised to pass the Senate, Paterson told reporters, "Drug abuse is an illness and more and more over the years we're finding that it's a treatable illness." New York Legal Aid Society attorney Bill Givney tells the Associate Press lawyers have about 270 possible New York City cases out of some 1,100 statewide identified by prison officials.

"Fun" fact: According a corrections spokeswoman, New York's prisons had 59,053 inmates Wednesday, with another 708 at the Willard Drug Treatment Center and 80 at a residential treatment facility for parole violators,.