PATERSON, N.J - Albany is engaged in its spring chess match, the legislative session's endgame where bishops and knights plot their strategies. But let Melita Oliveira's story speak for all the pawns, as she moves one space at a time toward home.

Ms. Oliveira left home 15 years ago to visit her sick father in Peru and hasn't really returned. An acquaintance there asked her to carry a small package back to New York. She says she thought it was diamonds. The police at Kennedy International Airport found cocaine.

Ms. Oliveira was a seamstress working two jobs here and a single mother raising five children. She had no criminal record and swore she had no idea she was carrying drugs. But she was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life under New York State's Rockefeller-era drug laws, which carry some of the nation's toughest sentences.

Ms. Oliveira, a small woman now 58, told the judge that the sentence would be "an indirect crime" against her children. He gave Ms. Oliveira the minimum allowed, 15 years, and she remembers him saying, "I can't change the law."

The children were torn from one another; some were placed with relatives or guardians and some were left on their own. "We were incarcerated, too, just on the outside," said one daughter, Liz Muñoz.

The youngest daughter, Julie Colón, was 9 at the time. In visits and phone calls, "She would say, `Mommy, when are you coming home?' " Ms. Oliveira recalled. " `When are you coming home? I need you.' "

Julie's grief turned to teenage anger. "I was very depressed and suicidal," Julie said. "I would slam the cabinets. I would break glass. I would carve on myself, I guess just to feel pain."

Now a 23-year-old college junior with a 2-year-old son, she is a vocal advocate for changing the Rockefeller laws. She said: "I never understood. Fifteen years. Why so long?"

Gov. George E. Pataki and Democrats in the Assembly have long agreed that the 29-year-old laws are unduly harsh and rigid, imposing longer minimum mandatory sentences for some first-time, nonviolent drug offenses than for rape and manslaughter. The November election is forcing the issue. Lawmakers want to remain tough on crime while appealing to Latino and black residents, who are heavily represented in prison and the object of wooing by the Republican governor. Everyone agrees that judges need more discretion and that sentences are too long, but not on how much to ease the laws.

Just as the laws that held her for so long appear to be inching toward change, Melita Oliveira is inching toward home. With a perfect prison record, she won clemency 18 months ago. Then the Immigration and Naturalization Service threatened another punishment: deportation. Amid news media and political attention, a judge interceded to stop that. Now she's living in Queens but can't move back to her family here until clearing another hurdle — transfer of her parole case to New Jersey.

Ms. Oliveira guided her children from prison. She had been a teacher in Peru and stressed education. She told her son Esly Panduro, "Never leave your brothers and sisters; stand behind them."

About a decade ago, as a 23-year-old veteran of the Persian Gulf war, Esly began reuniting his siblings in their old house in a frayed Paterson neighborhood. "We pushed each other," Julie said. One sister is a nurse, another is a sales representative at a bank. Esly is a police officer and a Rutgers University student. Another brother works for a towing company. Julie is studying literature and drama at Jersey City State.

Ms. Oliveira is allowed to visit her children. Sometimes, she's like Mom of old. Julie says that when she comes home from school and her mother is there, "She'll say, 'Are you hungry?' "

"I say, `No, Mom,' " Julie said. "She says: `You have to eat. You have to eat.' I think she wants to fill that void."

The lost time is an open wound. One day in the kitchen, Ms. Oliveira suddenly started weeping. "She said: `It was my fault. I left you when you were a baby,' " Julie said.

On Friday night, Julie picked up her mother for a weekend visit. Ms. Oliveira told her she hoped to be home for good by September. In Paterson, Ms. Oliveira settled into the living room. She remembered her recurring jailhouse dream. "I saw myself coming up the stairs and you were all here," she said.

The house was alive with Ms. Oliveira's children and grandchildren. "And we're here," Julie said. She smiled at her mother.

"Pinch me," Ms. Oliveira said.