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Crack Penalty Bill May Return

June 4, 2005
By BILL LEUKHARDT, Courant Staff Writer

Backers of a vetoed bill equalizing penalties for possessing crack and powder cocaine said Friday they'll give Gov. M. Jodi Rell a new proposal before the session ends.

"The real issue is fairness," Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said at a press conference to announce both the push to revive the proposal and plans for a January seminar on prison issues.

The sponsors will seek quick House and Senate passage of a proposal setting 14 grams - half an ounce - as the trigger amount of either crack or powder cocaine a suspect must possess to be charged as a dealer.

The law now says anyone possessing half a gram of crack cocaine can be charged as a dealer, with a mandatory minimum jail term of five years if convicted. For powder cocaine, the threshold is 28 grams.

The bill Rell vetoed would have set 28 grams of either as the threshold. Rell said a 28-gram threshold for crack was too lenient for a highly addictive drug often sold in cities by violent gangs that battle rivals for turf.

She said she would sign a compromise setting 14 grams as the threshold for the dealing charge for both crack and powder - a compromise position House and Senate Republicans proposed last month without success.

"The cooperation is there," Lawlor said about the drive to get an amended bill to Rell before the legislature goes home Wednesday. "The governor is willing to sign the compromise. A half-ounce of cocaine is about $1,000 of it. That's a lot of cocaine."

Those seeking reform say the current, lower threshold for crack - a smokable and cheaper form more common in cities than suburbs - is unfair.

It allows people who possess a tiny chip of crack the weight of half a raisin to be charged as dealers. Meanwhile, the dealing threshold for powder cocaine is 56 times greater under state law.

"It's hard to explain why $50 to $60 of crack is as bad as $2,000 to $3,000 of powder," Lawlor said Friday.

"She could have vetoed the bill and walked away, but she didn't," Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, said of Rell's message that she'll consider an amended bill.

But getting the 14-gram amendment approved may not be that easy.

Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, a member of the Black and Latino Caucus said the group will not support a revived bill unless it includes money to improve treatment for jailed addicts.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, pointed out another hurdle - the calendar.

"The enemy is time. We have much to do and only a few days left until the session ends," 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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