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
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
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.
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