June 3, 2005
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
Rejecting pleas by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, Gov. M. Jodi
Rell vetoed a bill Thursday that would have reduced the criminal
penalties for possession of crack cocaine and equalized them with
those for powder cocaine.
Rell had hinted to reporters recently that she opposed the bill,
but she had never said publicly that she would veto it.
"Crack cocaine is one of the most dangerous, addictive drugs
on the streets today, and is the source and cause of too much violence
in our cities," Rell said. "Now is not the time to ease
our law enforcement efforts."
Jackson and some state lawmakers said Connecticut's law needs to
be changed because African Americans are generally jailed for longer
periods for possession of crack with intent to sell than are white
citizens who are arrested for possession of powder cocaine.
"If this bill sends a message, governor, it is that Connecticut
won't stand for a criminal justice policy that promotes any racial
disparities," Jackson wrote in his letter to Rell. "And
we know, all too painfully, that even though crack use is relatively
equal across white and black communities, around the nation it is
almost entirely African Americans who are imprisoned on charges related
to crack. There are only 13 states which continue to uphold this
disparity, and Connecticut is one of them. There is no scientific
reason or acceptable law enforcement logic to justify this disparity."
In her veto message Thursday, Rell acknowledged the disparities
in the law and called upon the General Assembly to make changes before
the session adjourns at midnight Wednesday. Rell promised to sign
a bill offered by Senate Republican leader Louis DeLuca and Sen.
John Kissel that "would achieve parity in mandatory minimum
sentencing for powder cocaine and crack cocaine violations" while
still imposing tough penalties on each.
"I have also listened to the many painful stories of racial
disparities, and I intend to act to address them," Rell said. "I
want Connecticut in the forefront of this fight."
The Republican proposal, co-authored by Rep. Robert Farr in the
House of Representatives, would set 14 grams - or one-half ounce
- as the trigger for the crime of possession with intent to sell
for both crack and powder cocaine. Amendments advancing the 14-gram
limit failed previously in each chamber.
The bill that Rell vetoed would have set 28 grams - or one ounce
- as the possession threshold for either crack or powder cocaine.
Currently, a person can be charged with intent to sell if he or she
possess 28 grams of powder cocaine or 0.5 of a gram of crack - about
the weight of half a raisin. The crimes carry a mandatory minimum
sentence of five years in prison and a maximum of 20 years.
Neither the House nor the Senate had passed the crack bill by veto-proof
margins. The measure passed by 92 - 52 in the House and 21- 15 in
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said he had not decided
whether to attempt a veto override or whether to schedule a vote
on the Republican amendment.
"If we do that [amendment], we're going to need to put a lot
more money into corrections," Williams said, adding that more
cocaine sellers would be put in prison.
Rep. Ernest Newton II, a Bridgeport Democrat who has admitted publicly
that he is a former cocaine addict, said he was saddened that Rell
did not meet with the full, 18-member Black and Latino Caucus.
"I think she missed an opportunity that would have done a lot
for our communities throughout the state," Newton said Thursday
night at the Capitol. "This was just as important to us as campaign
finance reform is to her because whereas she doesn't live it, we
do. We met with her staff. It's a big difference than meeting with
the governor. ... Nobody's that busy. I think it's a smack in the
Black and Puerto Rican Caucus's face that we're lawmakers, and we
can't even meet with our own governor. I think we could have convinced
her about the disparities between crack and powder."
But Rell's spokesman, Dennis Schain, said the governor's legal counsel
had met with the full caucus at the governor's request, and Rell
had personally spoken to other key caucus members.
"She recommended steps to address the issue," Schain said,
adding that Rell had studied the matter carefully. "It was not
just a veto."
Upon hearing that Newton was interested in fairness and equalizing
penalties, DeLuca said, "If equalization is his issue, he should
have voted for our amendment. ... It's not a racial issue. It's to
protect law-abiding citizens, especially children, in the inner cities."
DeLuca burst into a smile when talking about a potential Senate
debate on a veto override, saying that Democrats could not defend
the idea of overriding the governor without sounding as though they
are going soft on drugs and crime.
"From a political standpoint, come and get me. I would love
it," DeLuca said. "I would print the political brochure
for the campaign right now. How do you justify that?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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