Op-ed: Legislature must reform misguided drug-free zone laws

One important piece of failed legislation from 2013 must re-emerge in public policy discussions at this year’s session of the General Assembly: Connecticut’s misguided drug-free zone laws require significant and immediate reform.

The current laws create increased penalties for offenders arrested for drug distribution, drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia within 1,500 feet of schools. Related laws exist for day care centers and public housing units.

During the 2013 session, state Rep. Gary A. Holder-Winfield of New Haven proposed a bill to reduce the size of zones across Connecticut from 1,500 feet to 300 feet. The bill was supported by the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission, a body specifically formed to advise the Assembly on such matters. Unfortunately, state politics and fears of re-election turmoil took precedence over justifiable policy construction.

Both sides of this debate share the common interest of preventing children from accessing illegal substances. However, the present laws, which enhance penalties using large radiuses, fail to achieve this goal. The laws are based on faulty logic and poor design. They are detrimentally impacting Connecticut in several ways.

The current drug-free zones threaten judicial fairness. They create uniform punishments irrespective of individual circumstances. Crimes committed away from kids on quiet summer nights away are often punished like crimes directly involving children during school hours.

The current drug-free zones inflate correctional costs. They place stress on an overburdened state budget by increasing the prison population. Such laws contribute to Connecticut’s incarceration rate, the highest in New England.

Perhaps most importantly, the current drug-free zones segregate Connecticut. Data undeniably show that the laws adversely affect minorities in Connecticut’s densely populated areas. An offender arrested for a randomly located drug crime in Hartford, New Haven, or Bridgeport is far more likely to face enhanced penalties than an offender in Guilford, North Haven or Westport. In fact, several of Connecticut’s cities are engulfed by overlapping zones. These zones have become a textbook example of institutional racism.

Recently, three states in the Northeast have acknowledged the failures associated with drug-free zones. Delaware reduced the size of their zones. New Jersey increased the role of judicial discretion. Massachusetts reduced zone size and created time restrictions limiting the hours when the law applies.

There have been no reports of increased drug activity in these states. They have not sent the “wrong message” to drug dealers. Their children remain safe. The politicians have survived.

Minor drug-free zone reforms that took place in 2001 show that modifications are possible in Connecticut without catastrophic political repercussions. Yet, meaningful change will only arrive when state legislators feel comfortable crafting laws based on logic and reason rather than fears of public outcry.

The responsibility now shifts to the citizens of Connecticut to let state legislators know that no politician will be ousted from office for supporting sensible policy decisions. Legislators should only be removed if they continue to cling to failed approaches that further aggravate our state’s pervasive racial divide.

Steven Block is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

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