Amend unequal 'drug free zone' laws

Back in the 1980s, many state legislatures passed laws establishing "drug free" zones around schools on the theory they would protect children from being preyed upon by people selling marijuana, heroin and cocaine. It seemed like a good idea at the time but then facts intervened and the drug free law turned out to be nothing more than a "feel good" action that provided the illusion of fighting the war on drugs without actually accomplishing much beyond filling prisons.

Connecticut's law first provided additional prison time for those caught selling or possessing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. Then it was expanded to 1,500 feet of not only schools, but also public housing projects and day care centers. The law tacks a mandatory, additional year on the sentences of those in possession of drugs and paraphernalia near a school, two years for having drugs near a day care center or public housing and three years for selling drugs near schools, day care centers or public housing.

But in congested cities like Hartford and New Haven, there is hardly a foot of land that doesn't lie within 1,500 feet of a school, public housing project or day care center. A map of New Haven produced by A Better Way Foundation showed a portion of Yale's golf course as the only part of the city not in a drug free zone. You can provide your own speculation as to whether a drug dealer might find a more promising market on a golf course or among preschoolers at a day care center.

The state Supreme Court has already overturned the conviction of a person found with large amounts of marijuana and cash within a drug free zone that also happened to be 1,500 feet from his own home in Hartford. The court upheld a verdict that he intended to sell the drugs somewhere but there was no proof he intended to sell at a school or other "drug free" locale, mainly because his entire city was virtually a drug free locale.

Then there's the fact that those living within drug free zones in these cities tend to be minorities, which means those arrested with the drugs tend also to be disproportionately black or Hispanic.

All of these problems with drug free zones are defended by advocates who argue they're a small price to pay for keeping pushers away from innocent children. They offer no evidence of this, mainly because what evidence exists makes the drug free zone idea seem questionable at best and unjust at worst.

William Brownsberger, a former attorney general of Massachusetts, has conducted extensive research into 443 drug arrests in Springfield, Fall River and New Bedford and discovered 80 percent of the arrests occurred in so-called drug free zones but only 1 percent involved school children in any way. A similar study by New Jersey's sentencing review commission found 2 percent of the cases involved students and 96 percent of those imprisoned for zone free violations were black or Hispanic.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission has unanimously recommended legislation that will scale back drug free zones from 1,500 to 200 feet. It also wants prosecutors to have to prove the person arrested intended to involve those with drug free status in his or her crime.

The point is not to go easier on drug sellers, rather it is a matter of equal treatment under the law. Drug dealers in largely white suburbia, with its fewer drug-free zones, are exposed to the less jail time for no another reason than where they live.

So far, the opposition has been heavy on emotion and misinformation. Rep. Christie Carpino of Cromwell has railed against making it easier for drug pushers "to set up shop near playgrounds and ball fields in the area neighborhoods."

Also unburdened by facts or statistical findings is former Gov. John Rowland, who has used his daily radio talk show to attack what he calls a plan "to make it easier for the drug dealers to sell to children." He dismisses the fact that a disproportionate number of minorities are arrested in the cities with citywide drug free zones by suggesting there may be "too many people of color selling drugs within 1,500 feet of schools."

It appears that Mr. Rowland, who enjoyed a light prison sentence for crimes he committed while governor, has become a convert to the concept of locking them up and throwing away the key since he completed his year in prison.

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