Hugh McQuaid Photo

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield would love to tell you that the U.S. Attorney General’s recent comments on mandatory prison sentences will help spur changes to local sentencing policy, but he is skeptical.

In a Monday address to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder questioned the efficacy of the nation’s “so-called ‘war on drugs,’” and called on federal prosecutors to stop using fixed-length sentences for low-level drug users with no connection to organized crime.

The attorney general said that indiscriminately using mandatory sentences in all cases regardless of specifics does not serve public safety and has a destabilizing effect on poor and minority communities.

“That is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” he said, according to a transcript from the Justice Department.

Holder-Winfield, a New Haven Democrat, is one of several Connecticut lawmakers who have been working for years to enact changes to the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Specifically, advocates want to see a reduction in the area surrounding a school or daycare, which of which the law considers a “drug-free zone.”

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. The problem with the law for many lawmakers in many urban communities is that as it’s currently written, drug-free zones cover their entire towns. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty.

For the past 10 years, some lawmakers have sought to reduce the size of the zone. Recent legislation would have cut the area from with 1,500 feet of a school, day care, or public housing complex, to within 300 feet. But so far, all attempts to change the law have been unsuccessful.

“There seems to be some notion that mandatory minimum sentences make us safer and that moving away from them makes us less safe,” Holder-Winfield said Tuesday. “We haven’t gotten through to them yet, I don’t imagine that [the attorney general’s comment] really changes the landscape.”

Holder-Winfield’s skepticism may be attributable in part to the momentum this year’s bill appeared to have before it lost support during an hours-long debate on the floor of the House.

For the first time, the bill had been endorsed by the state’s nonpartisan sentencing commission. Then the legislation was raised for a floor debate, usually a signal it has enough support to pass.

But over the course of the debate, supporters began to drop off and the bill was eventually tabled. Many lawmakers had concerns they were debating changes to statewide policy to correct an urban policy.

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

More than two months after the bill’s failure, Holder-Winfield says many lawmakers incorrectly saw the legislation as removing protections for children. With or without drug-free zones around schools, Connecticut law calls for a mandatory minimum of two years imprisonment for selling drugs to children.

Holder-Winfield said he and other advocates are still determining what their next step will be. He said they likely will schedule public forums to keep a conversation going and the new federal landscape presented by the attorney general’s plans will certainly be part of that conversation. He said the state needs to take a hard look at its criminal justice policy and to talk about what results it wants to see from the correction system.

“I think in terms of criminal policy we have a blind spot. I think it’s dangerous,” he said. “The best ways of dealing with recidivism isn’t always putting someone in prison.”

Even on the federal level, he said advocates need to do some “soul searching.” Although they may personally like the attorney general and President Obama, Holder-Winfield said advocates need to make sure their words become implemented policy. He said Obama gave a speech in his first term calling for many of the changes Holder outlined Monday.

“Not much has changed,” he said. “. . . The rhetoric, on the surface it at least sounds good, but I think you need to pay attention to the language.”