Christine Stuart photo
Laresse Harvey (Christine Stuart photo)

It’s an issue that doesn’t impact a majority of state lawmakers, which makes a bill that shrinks drug-free school zones from 1,500 to 200 feet, a tough sell.

That’s especially true in an election year when lawmakers running for re-election don’t want to be painted by their opponents as soft on crime. But proponents like Laresse Harvey remain optimistic.

Harvey has been advocating for similar legislation for a decade because she believes the law is racially biased in its implementation. It also doesn’t differentiate between possession and intent to sell, she said Wednesday during the Judiciary Committee’s public hearing on the bill.

The current law allowing an enhanced penalty for selling drugs near a school dates back to 1987. That year, Connecticut passed one of the harshest drug-free zone laws in the nation, establishing a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense within 1,000 feet of a school. The law was later expanded to 1,500 feet and now includes public housing complexes and day care centers.

The law was intended to protect children from drugs, but the result has been “a law that punishes African American and Latino offenders more severely than white offenders for exactly the same crimes while offering no protection at all to children in urban areas,” ACLU Attorney David McGuire said in written testimony.

New Haven resident Barbara Fair said the only place in the Elm City that’s not in a drug-free zone is the Yale Golf Course.

“The policy is inherently biased and leads to consequences that many would like us to believe are unintentional for communities of color,” Fair told the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

She said it’s an “unjust law” that gives prosecutors an extra edge in gaining a guilty plea from someone who may be innocent of a drug policy violation.

Decades after the so-called War on Drugs, researchers have proven that it hasn’t worked, so the question then becomes “what is the intended outcome of this war?” Fair said. “It has clearly wreaked havoc in poor communities and communities of color.”

Not only do some consider the enhanced penalty a form of racial discrimination, but the law is applied unevenly, Andrew Clark, executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, said.

“In Hartford, only 11 percent of those arrested in the school zones have been assigned the enhanced penalties,” Clark said. “In Meriden, 41 percent carried the school zone charge; in Wallingford, less than half of one percent. Clearly the decisions by police and prosecutors as to whether to invoke the statute has had little or nothing to do with keeping drugs away from school children in the way the legislation intended.”

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Hartford, asked opponents of the legislation if they knew that 1,500 feet is the length of five football fields, excluding end zones.

“I think the whole thrust of this initiative over the past few years is to make some sort of rational relationship between how children might be in danger if an individual is selling drugs the equivalent of five football fields away from a school that that child is attending,” Coleman said.

Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, said he understands that it’s an enhanced penalty, but he doesn’t want to see the distance shortened even if it means having to draw a white line around a drug-free zone.

Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, wondered why it was bad for densely populated cities to have little to no refuge from drug-free zones.

Because that would mean “iIt makes no difference when you possess or sell on the doorstep of a school or in an office building in downtown Hartford, and we didn’t think that was the intent of the legislature,” Clark explained.

Klarides said she understands the enhanced penalty for selling drugs near schools was supposed to be punitive, but she can’t understand how supporters of the bill believe it doesn’t help protect kids.

“Why are we still looking at this as a bad thing?” Klarides said. “I don’t see the difference between going from 1,500 feet to 200 feet.”

Last year, it came close to passing the House, but was yanked after two hours of debate when lawmakers who initially said they would support it started flipping their votes.