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Drug-Free Zones Are Bill's Targets

Measure Would Shrink Them And Remove Some

March 24, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

In a move likely to renew debate over the war on drugs, state legislators plan to consider a bill today that would reduce the size of drug-free school zones after a national report tagged them as unfair to cities and racially discriminatory.

Under Connecticut law, any drug activity - whether selling or buying - is subject to stiffer criminal penalties if it takes place within 1,500 feet of a public school, housing project or day-care center.

The idea behind the law, which was drafted in the late 1980s and mirrors similar laws in several other states, was to protect children from an outbreak of urban drug dealing as the crack epidemic hit its peak.

But the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based group known for supporting drug laws with the goal of treating offenders rather than punishing them, says that the law has contributed to a yawning disparity between the way whites and non-whites are treated by the courts.

Because the drug-free zones are so predominant in high-density cities such as Hartford and New Haven, the higher minority populations in those cities face stiffer penalties, the institute says.

In contrast, sprawling suburban towns such as Glastonbury and Madison, with higher white populations, are not nearly as saturated with the zones.

That makes it easier for drug users or sellers in suburban areas to avoid the extra penalties that come with being caught in a drug-free zone, critics say. Under current law, anyone convicted on a first offense for selling or possessing drugs in a drug-free zone faces a mandatory prison term of three to 15 years.

By comparison, anyone convicted on a first offense for selling or possessing drugs outside of a drug-free zone faces no mandatory minimum prison sentence, ostensibly making it easier to plea-bargain for probation or another sentence that does not include jail.

"No one wants drug dealing in their neighborhood, least of all poor people in the cities, but people who get caught using drugs in one area should get the same treatment as someone doing the same thing in another area," said state Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, a proponent of the bill.

The measure, scheduled for a public hearing today by the legislature's judiciary committee, would reduce the reach of drug-free zones, from within 1,500 feet of a public school to within 200 feet. The proposal would also drop housing projects and day-care centers from the law.

But the plan has met with opposition from those who view it as a sign of surrender in the effort to combat drug trafficking in the state's cities. Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said the proposal would give urban drug dealers more incentive to ply their trade.

"I recognize the anecdotal evidence that there are disparities between the cities and the suburbs, but I don't think that outweighs the need to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the scourge of drug dealing, namely our children," he said. "The bottom line is, we shouldn't give up."

Carol Coburn, a Hartford neighborhood activist who works closely with the police to fight drug dealing in the Barry Square and South Green areas, said the effort is misguided.

"It's obvious the people who support this bill don't care about families trying to raise their children in the city," Coburn said. "It seems like they care more about drug dealers."

While citing evidence from other states, the report acknowledges that there is no statistical information available from Connecticut that shows that those who are convicted for drug-related offenses in drug-free zones receive harsher sentences than those in areas outside of the zones.

And while state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said the idea of reducing the zones might sound like raising a white flag in the war on drugs, it's actually meant to put the battle on a level field.

"I don't think anyone wants to see different penalties for those caught dealing drugs in one area compared to another, but that's what's resulted with these zones," said Lawlor, who supports the measure.

"I can see how it might strike people as controversial," he said, "but if these drug-free zones were really meant to discourage people from engaging in drug activity near schools and other public areas, you have to ask yourself, `Have they worked?' I would say they haven't."

Lawlor cited statistics gathered over the past five years that show that, of all the people arrested on drug-related charges in Connecticut, about 55 percent were black or Latino, while almost 45 percent were white.

At the same time, he said, the breakdown of all those who have been imprisoned on drug-related convictions amounts to roughly 90 percent black or Latino, and 10 percent white.

Lawlor said that disparity is exacerbated by the concentration of drug-free zones within cities.

Cities' populations are made up mostly of minorities, which means minorities are more likely to be the ones receiving mandatory prison terms for drug violations in drug-free zones.

The mandatory sentences also give prosecutors added leverage when negotiating plea bargains with those pleading guilty to drug charges, he said.

"If you're a black kid from the city, you're looking at prison time no matter what, while a white person from the suburbs will have more leverage to avoid any time at all," Lawlor said.

The report by the policy institute reviewed 300 drug cases in Connecticut and New Jersey - both states with drug-free zone laws - and concluded that not only are the laws discriminatory, but that they do little to discourage drug activity in areas near schools and other places.

Other opponents of the proposal have argued that, instead of shrinking existing zones, the legislature should extend them, so crimes committed in larger swaths of suburban areas are also subject to the mandatory minimum sentences.

But Kevin Pranis, one of the report's authors from the policy institute, said such a measure would only further diminish the effectiveness of existing drug laws.

"Just because you make a law saying that from now on there will be no drug dealing anywhere in the city or the suburbs doesn't mean it's going to happen," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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