Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield talks to Rep. Mae Flexer (Christine Stuart photo)

In a tight vote with just minutes to spare before its deadline, the Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday to reduce heightened penalty zones for selling drugs near schools.

The bill just barely cleared the committee in a 21-19 vote less than 20 minutes before the committee’s 5 p.m. deadline for approving legislation this year. The legislation addresses what’s become a become a perennial effort for a group of lawmakers from state’s urban communities.

That’s because 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. And in many urban communities, drug-free zones currently include most, if not entire cities. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty.

Proponents of reducing the size of the zones say they are unfair to urban communities and that the blanket coverage of cities negates the deterrent impact of having harsher penalties near schools.

“When you have 90, 95 percent of a city in a drug free zone, you don’t have a differentiation” between selling drugs near kids or selling them somewhere else, Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said.

The bill would shrink the size of the zones, which cover an area around schools, daycares, or public housing complexes. The proposal would make the zones a 200-foot perimeter as opposed to the current 1,500-foot perimeter. The proposal has twice been endorsed by the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission.

However, opponents of reducing the zones view the change as a policy that’s “soft” on both crime and drugs. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said constituents have urged him to oppose weakening the state’s drug enforcement laws. He said his constituents would be fine with the entire state being a drug free zone.

“People just shouldn’t be selling drugs to kids period,” he said. “. . . Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of sympathy for drug dealers in my district.”

Kissel said he was sympathetic to proponents and suggested that if he represented an urban district he would recognize that the current law is unfair to constituents “if they’re drug dealers.” But he said the change would be unfair for the state’s residents who do not deal drugs.

Even without the drug free school zones, Holder-Winfield said there are enhanced penalties for selling drugs to minors. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said the state should be using children as the trigger for enhanced penalties, not entire cities.

Walker said the sale and use of drugs is often a mental health and addiction issue. She asked lawmakers from suburban and rural districts to share the burden of caring for people with addiction problems without putting them in prisons.

“We cannot incarcerate our way out of addressing mental health and addiction,” Walker said. “I’ve looked at the people that are incarcerated. The majority of the people that are in prisons in Connecticut are coming from my community and the ones that have these enhanced penalties. Look at the statistics my friends. Please, let’s share the responsibilities.”

Lawmakers have tried to pass a reduction in the school zones for years now. A similar bill came close to passage last year. The proposal was raised on the floor of the House and debated for more than two hours. Typically, legislation is not put on the floor for a debate without enough votes to pass. However, leadership tabled the drug free zone bill, killing it for the year, after support began to wane among House Democrats.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, urged lawmakers who have opposed previous incarnations to vote down this year’s proposal as well. She said that proponents did not approach her, as a ranking Republican on the committee, to discuss a compromise.

“What kind of message are we sending if we keep on proposing the same legislation over and over and over again with no real discussions?” she said. “The way it’s proposed, we can’t have this discussion. Nothing has changed. I encourage everyone to vote against this.”

The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration.