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Drug Free Zone Bill Clears Judiciary Just Before Deadline

by Hugh McQuaid | Apr 2, 2014 5:34pm
(11) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Town News, Legal, Public Safety

Christine Stuart photo

Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield talks to Rep. Mae Flexer

In a tight vote with just minutes to spare before its deadline, the Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday to reduce heightened penalty zones for selling drugs near schools.

The bill just barely cleared the committee in a 21-19 vote less than 20 minutes before the committee’s 5 p.m. deadline for approving legislation this year. The legislation addresses what’s become a become a perennial effort for a group of lawmakers from state’s urban communities.

That’s because in Connecticut, a conviction for possessing or buying drugs within a drug-free zone triggers a mandatory minimum prison sentence of two to three years. And in many urban communities, drug-free zones currently include most, if not entire cities. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty.

Proponents of reducing the size of the zones say they are unfair to urban communities and that the blanket coverage of cities negates the deterrent impact of having harsher penalties near schools.

“When you have 90, 95 percent of a city in a drug free zone, you don’t have a differentiation” between selling drugs near kids or selling them somewhere else, Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said.

The bill would shrink the size of the zones, which cover an area around schools, daycares, or public housing complexes. The proposal would make the zones a 200-foot perimeter as opposed to the current 1,500-foot perimeter. The proposal has twice been endorsed by the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission.

However, opponents of reducing the zones view the change as a policy that’s “soft” on both crime and drugs. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said constituents have urged him to oppose weakening the state’s drug enforcement laws. He said his constituents would be fine with the entire state being a drug free zone.

“People just shouldn’t be selling drugs to kids period,” he said. “. . . Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of sympathy for drug dealers in my district.”

Kissel said he was sympathetic to proponents and suggested that if he represented an urban district he would recognize that the current law is unfair to constituents “if they’re drug dealers.” But he said the change would be unfair for the state’s residents who do not deal drugs.

Even without the drug free school zones, Holder-Winfield said there are enhanced penalties for selling drugs to minors. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said the state should be using children as the trigger for enhanced penalties, not entire cities.

Walker said the sale and use of drugs is often a mental health and addiction issue. She asked lawmakers from suburban and rural districts to share the burden of caring for people with addiction problems without putting them in prisons.

“We cannot incarcerate our way out of addressing mental health and addiction,” Walker said. “I’ve looked at the people that are incarcerated. The majority of the people that are in prisons in Connecticut are coming from my community and the ones that have these enhanced penalties. Look at the statistics my friends. Please, let’s share the responsibilities.”

Lawmakers have tried to pass a reduction in the school zones for years now. A similar bill came close to passage last year. The proposal was raised on the floor of the House and debated for more than two hours. Typically, legislation is not put on the floor for a debate without enough votes to pass. However, leadership tabled the drug free zone bill, killing it for the year, after support began to wane among House Democrats.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, urged lawmakers who have opposed previous incarnations to vote down this year’s proposal as well. She said that proponents did not approach her, as a ranking Republican on the committee, to discuss a compromise.

“What kind of message are we sending if we keep on proposing the same legislation over and over and over again with no real discussions?” she said. “The way it’s proposed, we can’t have this discussion. Nothing has changed. I encourage everyone to vote against this.”

The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration.

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(11) Comments

posted by: Lawrence | April 2, 2014  6:39pm

Let the right-wing spin and lies begin.

posted by: dano860 | April 3, 2014  7:16am

I believe the right wing loons will support this, entrepreneurs are advocated by them. Now it’s up to the left wing loons to get the “revenue” (taxes) out of this expansion of operating area. Heavens forbid they get to use the public street for “free”.
How about we do something meaningful under that dome? Lets take a look at our neighbor, N.Y. for instance…
http://www.newsday.com/business/state-budget-ends-corporate-income-tax-for-manufacturers-1.7577046
Or how about N.H. to the north…
http://portsmouth-nh.patch.com/groups/politics-and-elections/p/portsmouth-company-gets-job-training-grant
Both of those stories highlight the lack of thinking that is being put forward in Ct. Why not try for real jobs and training that may help break the cycle of drugs and poverty?
War on drugs? Not happening in Ct.

posted by: Chien DeBerger | April 3, 2014  6:02pm

Insanity!

posted by: lobbyistct | April 4, 2014  3:07pm

Um, so Mr. Winfield is saying to give “these” criminals a break cause there are just too many schools in the hood?  Um, so the thugs can move to the burbs, no?  Ridiculous!! Who is this legislator?  Great for New Haven!!! DOH!!!

posted by: dano860 | April 4, 2014  4:54pm

Now that they have a larger area to offer their wares in the dome dwellers need to figure out how to tax the dealers. When they do, eventually, get the reduced sentence they should have put some money in the State coffers toward their care.
This is insanity, catering to the people that ruin peoples lives.

posted by: justsayin | April 4, 2014  6:12pm

This is a no brainer, vote no in the senate.

posted by: Joebigjoe | April 4, 2014  6:12pm

Fantastic legislation. Crystal clear example of how Dems are soft on crime. Pass it please.

They could have gone 1500 feet to 1000 but no, basically you can live pretty much across the street selling dope.

posted by: StillRevolting | April 4, 2014  7:38pm

OK Lawrence, here is your right-wing spin. Better stated, here is a position on an issue written by a Connecticut Republican. This was a terrible law and could never be enforced fairly given the differences in urban and rural landscapes and demographics. There is no reason a kid in a cul-de-sac in Wilton should have a better standing before a judge on the issue than a kid in Hartford simply because he is lucky enough to live in the cul-de-sac and deals out of his mom’s basement instead of on a street corner. A note for CT Democrats: Want to make the world a nicer, fairer place? Continue to identify stuff like this and act on it. Works far better than stealing more of my paycheck to hand to hedge funds, unions, and anybody else whose vote you think you are entitled to buy with my money. Do it consistently, get out of my pocket, and perhaps good Democratic candidates will see a vote or two from me in the future. They certainly will not next fall at anything other than the local level. One-party rule is the reason Connecticut is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to so many economic metrics and, I’ve had it with being robbed blind for no reason other than to further secure one-party rule for Connecticut Democrats who have proven that they wish to grow government until it’s the only game in town. In most cases, government is not the answer. I’m sick of picking up the tab for those who think it is the only answer.

posted by: Lawrence | April 4, 2014  8:33pm

Of course CT already has a separate charge for selling drugs to a minor—CGS Section 21a-278a(a). It’s a mandatory 2-year prison term running consecutively to the prison term imposed for the underlying crime.

The problem with the “old” 1,500 foot rule is that it required a mandatory minimum for simple POSSESSION within 1500 feet of a school, senior center or public housing project—you didn’t even have to be trying to sell to kids (or seniors).

What was the effect of that?

11% arrested in Hartford got the enhanced penalty. 41% in Meriden. Less half one-half of one percent in Wallingford.

Why? Because police and prosecutors chose not to pursue the charge when there was NO EVIDENCE THE POSSESSION WAS INTENDED TO BE SOLD TO MINORS.

Plus, there is already an enhanced penalty for that.

Quite frankly, shrinking the possession zone around schools makes it MORE LIKELY that more drug dealers will get hit with this stiffer sentence—not less.

I consider myself very tough on crime. If I thought drug dealers would be walking free with this change, I’d be against it.

I think Republican legislators know this, but they just can’t help licking their chops at being able to call Democrats “soft on crime” and hope that an ignorant electorate—dumbed down with hundreds of thousands of Greenwich billionaire campaign dollars—will get the big lie across the finish line.

Meanwhile, some guy with a felony record kills three innocent women in cold blood in Manchester (the same number of people killed at Fort Hood) because he got his hands on a stolen gun. Where’s the outrage over that? 

Now that’s a problem worth passing new legislation, building a new prison and instituting mandatory minimums for.

posted by: justsayin | April 5, 2014  6:50am

Did I miss the report showing all the positive effects of this “deterrent” of school zones. And if so would not a further perimeter offer more protection? For the children,  its always about the kids, right?

posted by: jspeedbump | April 5, 2014  11:51pm

You idiots will allow a smaller drug free zone but won’t allow standard capacity magazines for common modern sporting rifles.  I am so glad I left that state of Confusion.