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For 27 years, Connecticut has had a law that provides much harsher penalties for selling or possessing drugs in cities than in suburban or rural communities and once again, legislation to eliminate this unfair law died in the General Assembly.
The law maintains "drug free zones" within 1,500 feet of any school, day care center or public housing project. Anyone convicted of selling drugs -or possessing them - in these areas faces additional prison time, a year for possession, three years for selling.
Who could argue with a law meant to protect children from drug dealers? And that's the problem. To make a case against a 1,500-foot drug free zone, you have to understand its consequences, so let's see how the law is enforced in two Connecticut communities with similarly sounding names, Bridgeport and Bridgewater.
Bridgeport, with 19.4 square miles, and Bridgewater, at 17.3 square miles, are about the same size. That is where the similarities end. There are 146,425 people living on Bridgeport's 19.4 square miles and 1,727 in Bridgewater. Bridgeport has 42 schools and Bridgewater has one, so the 1,500-foot drug free zones around Bridgeport's 42 schools swallow up nearly the entire city, while Bridgewater's drug free school zone takes only a tiny portion of its land area.
Without even counting the day care facilities and public housing projects -nearly nonexistent in the smaller communities - you get the picture. The drug free zone law transforms entire cities with their large minority populations into drug free zones, subject to the harsher penalties for selling or even possessing drugs. This means a person selling the same drug in Bridgeport as in Bridgewater is subject to three more years in prison. For possession of the same drug in Bridgeport, he can get an extra year in prison.
The law is enforced, sometimes to ridiculous extremes, as Michael Lawlor, the governor's undersecretary for criminal justice policy, pointed out when he was still a legislator and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee:
"Arrests at 3 a.m., or during school vacation, or involving middle-aged junkies (selling) to one another, were charged the same way as actual sales to school children," said Mr. Lawlor as he tried unsuccessfully to repeal the law in 2006.
This time, legislators, led by Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven (54 schools), didn't even try to repeal the law. The bill Sen. Winfield supported, unlike some in the recent past, merely reduced the drug free zones from more than a quarter of a mile to a more realistic and workable 200 feet.
The existing law is unfair. There is no evidence it has curtailed drug use or insulated students from it. Reducing the standard to a zone actually around a school makes logical sense. So why can't the votes be found to change it?
Lawmakers fear that a vote for reducing the zones would lead to their being attacked by opponents as soft on drugs.
Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher, deputy majority leader, told CT News Junkie that she had heard from public housing residents in Norwalk who urged her not to change the drug free zones around their homes.
"They want them stronger," said the senator. "One mother said that she sees drug dealers under her window every single day. She would like there to be drug free zones around her entire city if we could do that."
There's no doubt this mother sees drug dealers every day because chances are they live in the same housing project and when they're arrested or imprisoned, there are other poor residents to be recruited as replacements. These are the criminals the legislators and law enforcement aim at as they act tough on drug crime. However, when was the last time we had a major arrest of the bigger fish?
Legislators in some neighboring states, faced with similar opposition and political fears, have been able to modify their laws. New Jersey passed legislation that would allow judges to use some discretion and common sense in administering the law. Delaware reduced the size of its zone, as has Massachusetts, which also limited the hours when police could cite them.
That might be Sen. Holder-Winfield's approach when he tries again.