Christine Stuart photo

Legislation to reduce the size of “drug free zones” around schools died quietly in the Education Committee on Thursday following a meeting outside the House chamber.

The perennial bill would have reduced the areas around schools which trigger automatic harsh penalties for drug convictions. The current policy is an issue in urban communities where the zones make up most, if not entire cities. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty.

Proponent Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, attended the Education Committee’s meeting Thursday and said there was little discussion about the bill before the committee members declined to let it progress.

“The chair asked if there were any questions on the bill. There were no questions,” Holder-Winfield said. When the votes were tallied later that morning “we didn’t have the votes we needed, so unfortunately the bill wound up dead.”

The bill was defeated in an 11-17 vote. Holder-Winfield said opponents of the bill did not make arguments against the proposal. “It just kind of died a little, lonely, pitiful death,” he said.

Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative
Bridgeport and Bridgewater’s Drug Free School Zones (Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative)

The bill’s failure is frustrating for proponents who have sought the legislation for years. The proposal has twice been endorsed by the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission. The bill made it as far as a floor debate in the House last year, but was shelved when support began to wane among Democrats.

Holder-Winfield said he intends to bring the legislation back next year and will work to educate other lawmakers on the impact of the current policy. He said there is an enhanced penalty for dealing drugs to kids, with or without the drug free zones.

“Absent the school drug zones — let’s say we completely eviscerated them — there would still be enhanced penalties,” he said. Independent of the school zones, selling drugs to a child carries a least a three-year penalty.

“But we recognize the importance of the school or daycare center” and have proposed to keep the zone within 200 feet of the perimeter of the schools, he said. Currently there is a 1,500-foot area around the schools or daycare centers.

A similar bill squeaked out of the Education Committee on a 15-14 vote last year. The panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, said lawmakers should be more reluctant to reduce the penalty zones in the wake of a law passed by the legislature in 2011 which decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

“The fact that now the penalty for pot is so reduced, it’s almost like a parking ticket, it has emboldened those who are unscrupulous and do deal drugs to young children to target these areas,” she said.

Boucher said she has met with parents in housing projects in the city of Norwalk who have urged her not to change the drug free zones around the homes.

“They want them to be stronger than weaker. One mother said that she sees drug dealers under her window every single day and is so angered by this and that her children are exposed to this kind of activity,” she said. “She would like there to be drug free zones around her entire city if we could do that.”

Holder-Winfield said he hoped to convince some of his colleagues the current law is bad public policy, even if their constituents do not want to see a change.

“Our constituencies have enough intelligence to understand something that they may not agree with, but if we’ve got information that says what we believed wasn’t true and if we explain to them, they can understand it. They are adults, they get to vote and information helps to change things. That’s part of our job,” he said.