Supporters Urge Change to Laws on Drug-free School Zones (CT)

The Stamford Advocate
By: Tobin A. Coleman
Published: March 25, 2006

HARTFORD -- Calling current law racist, activists yesterday pushed for a bill that would shrink the size of zones around schools, day-care centers and public housing that carry stiffer penalties for drug offenses.

The bill would reduce the current 1,500 foot "drug free" radius around those facilities to 200 feet, within which additional mandatory three-year sentences are tacked on to drug offenses, including possession, sale and intent to sell drugs.

Advocates said the law hurts minorities disproportionately because prohibited zones blanket most of Connecticut's mostly minority central cities much more than suburban or rural areas. Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, for example, are almost totally covered with drug-free zones, according to a national study released this week by the Justice Policy Institute.

Supporters of the bill held a news conference before testifying at a Judiciary Committee public hearing on the bill and several others. "All these laws do is be tough on people of color and poor people in our communities," said Barbara Fair, a licensed clinical social worker and member of New Haven-based People Against Injustice. "It's giving the prosecutors a (plea bargaining) tool to use to coerce people to plead guilty to crimes they may not have even committed."

The bill would also require signs to be posted on the borders of the so-called drug-free zones.

The law's intent, to protect children and public housing residents from drug activity, is not working, proponents of the change said, citing the Justice Policy Institute report.

"School zones laws have contributed to the overall incarceration of urban residents," said Lorenzo Jones, executive director of A Better Way Foundation, which advocates moving drug laws from criminal sanctions to treatment and education.

Former Norwalk mayor and Democratic state legislator Bill Collins introduced a similar proposal in the legislature a decade ago, but had no success. Collins said lawmakers were afraid of being labeled as weak.

"The Democrats were pretty much constitutionally in favor of changing it, but very much afraid if any of them raised their head on the issue a Republican opponent could come along and call them soft on drugs," Collins said in a phone interview.

Republican House leaders discussed the bill in a private meeting yesterday. Deputy House Minority Leader Claudia "Dolly" Powers, R-Greenwich, said she opposes the bill. Powers, who will vote on the measure as a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill would endanger children.

"I'm not going to be the one person who's going to vote to put kids in poor neighborhoods in more danger," Powers said. "I just don't think that's an appropriate thing to do at all."

Powers said she does not see the current law as racist if someone is guilty of a drug-related crime.

"I don't have a problem with them serving time because they shouldn't be around schools and they shouldn't be around day-care centers," she said.

Chief state's attorney Christopher Morano said the Division of Criminal Justice "strongly opposes" the bill. Morano testified the reduction would only encourage drug dealing.

"This is not about addressing social, economic or racial injustice, but rather about standing up for the innocent, law-abiding citizens," Morano wrote in prepared testimony. "This bill also sends the wrong message to those who are committing the violence and turning our neighborhoods into battle zones."

Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said he can see room for compromise. After speaking with Norwalk officers, Rilling said he could see some good in reducing the zones, but not as low as 200 feet from the perimeter of the schools, day care centers and public housing, as the bill now proposes. A 500-foot barrier might be more realistic, he said. Under current law almost all of Norwalk is within 1,500 feet of one of the qualifying facilities, he said.

"There is room, I believe, for working some effective changes that are fair and reasonable but would still accomplish what we're looking to accomplish," Rilling said in a phone interview. "I could support some very well thought out changes in the law that would have the effect that we want it to have, while being reasonable."

Leading proponent state Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, said she understands some lawmakers are afraid to vote for the bill in this election year for fear of being branded soft on crime.

"I can understand in an election year that people are afraid of certain things," Kirkley-Bey said. "I don't think this is the only bill that will cause a quiver in their hearts."

Judiciary Committee co-Chairman Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said he has not yet taken a position on the bill.

The committee's other co-chairman, Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, supports it.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell last year supported a compromise that equalized the amount of crack and powder cocaine someone would have to posses to be charged with drug dealing. Yesterday Rell spokesman John Wiltse said she opposes any weakening of current law. "Governor Rell believes we should not give one foot of ground to potential drug dealers," Wiltse said in an e-mail response.

The Judiciary Committee has a Monday deadline to vote on the bill.