The Judiciary Committee passed its most controversial bills of the session Wednesday during a meeting that saw votes on medical marijuana, repealing the death penalty, and handful of other proposals.
By the time the meeting concluded around 6 p.m., the committee had cleared bills strengthening the state’s racial profiling reporting laws, allowing for the medical use of marijuana, repealing the death penalty, and changing the way police conduct criminal lineups.
Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said their ambitious agenda didn’t go unnoticed around the Capitol.
“I have to say, when I came in this morning someone said to me, ‘Boy I really admire the Judiciary Committee to take up death and dope on the same day,’” he said.
The bill to prospectively replace the death penalty with life in prison squeaked out of the committee on a 24-19 vote.
The bill was raised for a vote only hours after the release of a Quinnipiac University poll that found that 62 percent of voters oppose repealing the death penalty. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a supporter of the death penalty, said the poll had him feeling like a member of the majority party.
“For those of my colleagues who say they know better, I would say that the people of Connecticut are pretty darn smart,” he said.
However, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said the poll didn’t ask the question they were debating, which is swapping capital punishment for life in prison. In past years, Quinnipiac polls have also included a question asking whether voters prefer the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Typically, results for that question are closer to evenly split, he said.
“Today’s poll did not have that question. It does speak to whether people want a punishment they think is appropriate, but it doesn’t ask the question that’s actually before the state,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who supports repeal, also was asked about the poll. He said said it’s not a matter of public opinion, it’s a matter of conscience.
“I think when issues such as this are polled they sometimes have disparate results and I think everyone should be guided by their own conscience on matters such as this,” Malloy said.
Malloy said that if politicians listened to polls, then the Civil Rights Act may have never passed and “we’d still be operating largely under Jim Crow laws.”
During the debate, proponents of the bill defeated two amendments from Republican lawmakers.
One amendment from Kissel would have required that the 11 inmates currently on death row stay in solitary confinement. It would also require solitary confinement for anyone convicted of capital murder or murder with special circumstances in the future.
Kissel said he believes that as soon as the legislature passes the prospective bill, everyone on death row will be able to appeal their sentences. He said he didn’t want to allow inmates convicted of cruel and heinous crimes to be allowed into the general prison population where they will be able to build rights and responsibilities, he said.
“Fundamentally I do not believe that is just,” he said.
However, Holder-Winfield said there are currently plenty of inmates in the general population who have committed horrible crimes, they just weren’t chosen for capital punishment.
“We haven’t had special isolation custody for them. To my mind if it’s not just that they would be there, then it has not been just that they would be there and anyone who wanted to change that system could have put forth a bill to deal with it for a very long time,” he said.
The committee’s co-chairmen, Rep. Gerald Fox and Sen. Eric Coleman, told Kissel they wouldn’t be voting for the amendment but said they would work with him on it after getting input from the Correction Department commissioner. The amendment was defeated 26-16.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, proposed another amendment that would have repealed the program passed last year that allows inmates to earn time off their sentences by participating in rehabilitative programs.
Although he supports the repeal of the death penalty, Roraback said the early release program represents a broken promise to crime victims. After his amendment was defeated 26-15, he voted against the bill to repeal the death penalty.
The bill will have to be raised in the Senate this year, where the vote is expected to be tight.
The committee’s hour-long debate on medical marijuana was markedly different from last year’s, with several lawmakers calling it the most workable bill to date.
The bill passed 35-8, getting some votes from members who opposed previous versions. Kissel said that while he voted against last year’s bill, the current bill put to rest old concerns.
Kissel said the bill addressed his uncertainty over how deathly ill patients would be able to grow marijuana. The bill calls for cannabis to be distributed by licensed dispensaries. Though he called last year’s bill “unwieldy,” Kissel said it didn’t seem fair to deny comfort to suffering patients.
“When you sit here year in and year out and you listen to individuals facing these really horrific circumstances in their lives, who are we to not allow them to access this if it gives them some comfort?” he said.
Hetherington decided to support the legislation this year because it seemed appropriate in light of the last year’s law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
“We have an indication that our societal view of marijuana is not what it once was. I would find it ironic and perhaps cruel that we take a casual attitude in terms of possession . . . and at the same time attempt to deny marijuana for people who had a legitimate need for medical relief,” he said.
However, several lawmakers said the bill blatantly violates federal law that defines marijuana as a dangerous drug. Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding, said the bill was an attempt to “do a hopscotch around federal law,” which preempts it.
Shaban said if lawmakers were willing to say, “You know what feds? We don’t care. We are going to assert our rights as a state to say what our citizens can or can’t do,” he would be willing to have a discussion. However, he said the bill doesn’t do that, it just creates dual policy.
“On the face of the law it’s illegal. It’s bad policy and it’s bad procedure,” he said.