Hugh McQuaid photo

After a more two hours of debate, the House tabled a bill Thursday that would have reduced drug-free school zones from 1,500 feet to 300 feet. 

The bill’s proponents said that there are few places in cities that aren’t 1,500 feet from a school, daycare, or public housing complex, while most of the geography in Connecticut’s suburban and rural towns doesn’t fall into these restricted zones.

The current mandatory sentence for possession of illegal drugs within 1,500 feet of a school or daycare is two years, and selling illegal drugs inside the zone is three years. Those penalties are served consecutively, or in addition to the sentence for the underlying crime. In practice, however, often there are plea bargains in which a prosecutor may opt to drop the school zone charge in exchange for a guilty plea on the underlying charge.

But the proponents of the bill are concerned that the laws on drug free zones essentially cover entire municipalities, leading to a condition of an unfair additional jeopardy for all who live there.

“In some of our cities, particularly our larger cities, those entire cities are areas where an enhanced penalty would be in effect,” Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said. “By doing that we have created places where there is no disparate treatment for dealing to or around young people.”

Similar legislation has been proposed for at least the past 10 years, but this was the first year the bill had the full-support of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, which is a panel of judges, lawyers, police officers, academics, and members of the business community. Proponents felt the endorsement of the nonpartisan commission would help push the bill over the finish line. It didn’t.

The legislation was tabled after support among House Democrats began to wane.

Early in the debate, the House narrowly adopted an amendment to reduce the zone to 300 feet. The amendment was adopted by a 78-65 margin.

Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, voted for the amendment, but spoke against it as the debate continued.

“I have to apologize to my colleague, because I know I told him I would support the bill and I know that his intentions are honorable,” Nicastro said to Holder-Winfield. “But I realize now that if we bring it down to 300 [feet], we are defeating the purpose of the bill. Maybe in certain areas in large cities we should [change] things there, but we’re taking the entire state into consideration here.”

A few Republicans said they felt the problem should be addressed solely in cities, rather than applying to the entire state.

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, proposed and subsequently withdrew an amendment adding clauses giving municipalities the authority to determine the size of school zones by local ordinance.

Although the amendment was discarded, Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, said he supported the sentiment and he believes people in rural towns would be adversely affected by the bill.

“We’re identifying an issue in urban areas and applying it to 169 cities and towns,” Perillo said. “Who are we helping? We’re helping that drug dealer who happens to sell his product 500 feet from a school.”

Holder-Winfield, the bill’s main proponent said he’s not sure what happened. He thought he had enough support for the measure, but after two hours of debate Republicans began to pick off lawmakers who were on the fence.

Andrew Clark, the acting executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, said the bill had the full support of the commission but he recognized the legislation would meet political battles.

“Connecticut has some of the highest racial disparities in its prison system in the country,” Clark said. “But it’s become a highly politicized issue. The system has to address public safety, but it also has to be mindful of the impact of the system on everyone involved. The majority of people voting on this do not have a constituency that’s affected by it.”

Hugh McQuaid photo

The disparity of the school zone law has been seen across the country. The Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank based out of Northampton, Mass., published a report in 2008 recommending a reduction in school zones in order to create an effective deterrent.

“Simply put, when a legislature says that every place is special, no place is special,” Peter Wagner, PPI’s founder, said. “These laws also create a two-tiered system of justice: a harsher one for dense urban areas with numerous schools and overlapping zones, and a milder one for rural and suburban areas, where schools are relatively few and far between.”

Other states, according to Wagner, have passed similar legislation.

New Jersey passed a law in 2010 that requires judges to consider a variety of factors before handing down an enhanced sentence, and Massachusetts reduced its school zone radius to 300 feet through legislation in January this year.

However, Wagner said the effectiveness of the legislation in addressing racial disparities is difficult to determine, especially since the laws are so new.

“From what I’ve heard there’s no buyer’s remorse among states who have enacted [this type] of legislation,” he said. “But it’s hard to measure the immediate effects.”

The bill was a key policy initiative of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus. It was one of two the caucus backed in an attempt to address racial disparities in Connecticut.

The second piece of legislation, HB 6581, was passed by the House last week in a 137-4 vote and is currently on the Senate calendar. The bill would effectively eliminate life sentences for juvenile offenders and would allow parole hearings after 12 years or 60 percent (whichever is longer) of a sentence for inmates who were convicted as minors.

Researchers at the Civil Justice Clinic at Quinnipiac University Law School found that of the inmates in Connecticut serving terms longer than 50 years, 69 percent are African American and 23 percent are Hispanic, and all four of the inmates currently serving life without parole are African American.

Rep. Juan Calendaria, D-New Haven, said these statistics are equally concerning for juveniles, citing the report’s finding that 88 percent of juvenile offenders serving more than 10 years are African American or Hispanic.

“If that’s not a disparity, I don’t know what is,” Calendaria said.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis said the bill could save the Department of Correction $30,000 per inmate annually if inmates are released for supervised parole.

Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, added that the legislature’s work is far from over with this bill. He said that even as those who were convicted as juveniles are released and reintroduced into communities, they struggle to find jobs and reintegrate.

“Some of the policies that we still have here in the state of Connecticut hamper them from connecting back into the communities,” he said, although further legislation may have to wait for another session as the June 5 deadline nears.