Effort to shrink drug-free zones stalls

Someone caught selling cocaine in New Haven is almost certain to face the most severe charges, since almost all of the city is within a “Drug Free Zone,” with a school, day care or public housing facility nearby.

Just a few towns over, in Madison, where there are fewer schools and the population is much smaller, few locations fall within these restricted zones, and anyone caught selling cocaine will likely face charges that carry less jail time.

“The punishment shouldn’t be enhanced because of where you live,” said Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, on Thursday. “Fair is fair.”

But efforts by the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to change a policy that disproportionately affects minorities have stalled indefinitely.

After several hours of debate on a bill that would scale back these zones from the current 1,500 feet to 300 feet from a school or day care center, House of Representatives leaders decided the votes may not be there for it to pass. They ended the discussion without a vote.

“Leadership felt the argument against the bill was too strong,” said Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, the leader of the caucus.

With only six days left to get the bill through both the House and Senate before the legislative session adjourns, it is uncertain whether leadership will set aside the hours of debate still needed for its approval.

Republicans spent hours filibustering the bill Thursday, expressing their displeasure with a move they said would signal to criminals that the state is soft on crime.

“What are we doing?” asked Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “We are opening the doors for our children to be the victims once again.”

Rep. Anthony D’Amelio, R-Waterbury, agreed.

“This would really be a harsh mistake… 300 feet is not a lot. It could be right across the street from a school. A kid could be witnessing a drug transaction through a school window for God’s sake,” he said.

Several suburban Democrats, while supportive of narrowing the zones in urban areas, seemed unconvinced that such a move was appropriate in their communities and statewide.

But proponents of the change say that “Drug Free Zones” are largely ineffective in deterring drug deals near schools, since there are few places in urban communities that don’t carry the higher penalties.

“The concept of putting a sanctuary around a school has been lost. If you are an urban drug dealer there is no incentive for you to move away from the school because it’s all a [drug-free] zone,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford.

Nonpartisan legislative researchers eight years ago reported that “there has been no demonstrable reduction in drug trafficking or use” because of these increased penalties.

The result of this decades-old law has been that minorities are disproportionately affected since those who live in the cities are largely black and Hispanic.

“None of us would support legislation that imposes a harsher penalty on people of color than on white people for exactly the same behavior, but that has been the very real, if unintended, consequence of drug-free zones,” David McGuire, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, testified earlier this year.

The Sentencing Project -– a national criminal justice reform group -– reports that the proposed change would affect about one-in-seven drug offenders in the state. The state’s Sentencing Commission reports that 64 percent of those charged with drug offenses in the restricted areas in the communities that provided the data were minorities.

The mandatory sentences for drug activity in these restricted areas range from one to three years in addition to any other charges someone is found guilty of.  Judges do have some discretion in limiting these sentences if they are convinced the intention was not to sell nearby a school, to children and the transaction was not violent.

See town-by-town Drug Zone maps here and the sentence length of those found guilty here.

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