Drug Free Zone Law Targeted for Reform

NH drug zones

Locations in New Haven subject to drug free zone laws. (Map is a link). 


They’ve debated it every year for several years, and now, in the wake of Governor Dan Malloy’s declaration of his commitment to drug policy reform-namely, the pursuit of “Second Chance Society” initiatives that include reclassification of nonviolent offenses, elimination of mandatory minimums for nonviolent possession, and expedited parole and pardon processes-the Connecticut legislator will again consider proposed changes to a drug free zone law that detractors say perpetuates mass incarceration and the cycle of poverty without deterring offenders.

Current policy imposes three-year mandatory minimums for drug offenders arrested within 1500 feet of a school, daycare center, or public housing project. If State Senator Gary Holder Winfield and others in favor of changing the law have their way, those “drug free zones”-shown to disproportionately impact higher density urban communities-will be reduced to 300 feet.

But Barbara Fair, a New Haven activist with My Brother’s Keeper, is less than optimistic.

“Every year we go back to the same thing, and every year we come back with the same result,” Fair said.

Last year the proposal failed to make it out of the Education Committee. The furthest it has ever gone was  House of Representatives, where it was rejected in 2013. Right now it is sitting with the Judiciary Committee, which will vote on it in April. Holder, a Democrat representing New Haven, is on that committee.

So is Republican Senator Toni Boucher, and she intends to oppose any reduction to the size of the drug free zones, which she says are designed to protect school children from those dealing.

“We want to keep our school children as safe as possible,” Boucher said. “You don’t want then to inadvertently stumble on a drug transaction. There are all kinds of things that can happen.”

The impulse behind the law is more than understandable, but results have shown that imposing enhanced sentences for drug offenses in the designated zones has done little to curb dangers posed to children, Holder says.

“It’s certainly not a disincentive in Hartford or New Haven,” he said. “We need to have an honest conversation and reduce the size of drug zones.”

The law is also a redundancy, given that separate legislation imposing harsher punishment for the sale of drugs to minors-anywhere-already exist, Holder says.

“You could be 4,000 feet away [from a drug free zone] and because of a separate set of laws, you would get an enhanced sentence,” he said.

That does not make drug free zones less of a necessity, Boucher says.

“That’s the same argument as why do you need to prevent people from carrying a gun into school,” she said.

The state’s first drug free zone law-established in 1987-carried a two-year minimum for offenders arrested within 1,000 feet of schools. Two years later that reach was extended to 1500 feet and housing projects were added. In 1994, the law expanded again to include daycare centers.

But between 2000 and 2004, mandatory minimum drug arrests climbed from around 7,500 to over 9,000, according to Program Review and Investigation Committee data included in a 2006 Justice Policy Institute report. Fifty percent of those arrested were African American.

Whether or not offenders have more or less of an incentive with the existence drug free zones, they will certainly have a harder time avoiding them in places like Hartford in New Haven, where the number of schools, daycare centers, and public housing projects creates one giant map wherein which the policy applies.

In New Haven, that area is 93 percent of the city. In both Hartford and Bridgeport, it’s 92 percent.

“The reason for that is it’s densely populated,” Boucher said. “That’s common sense-it’s not disadvantaging one over the other.”

But the law’s critics would disagree. The Justice Policy Institute cites a 2001 Yale Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS study that examined the number of drug free zones and racial demographics of 166 Connecticut towns. Findings indicated that municipalities where a quarter or more of the population was identified as African American or Hispanic had enhanced sentencing areas at six-times the density as those where those groups made up less than 10 percent of residents.

Disadvantaging one group or type of municipality over the other may not have been the intention, but it has been the result, critics argue. In 2014 the investigative news site ThinkProgress reported that white offenders made up 27 percent of those arrested in drug free zones-between October 2011 to October 2012-while accounting for 70 percent of Connecticut’s population. The state has the highest incarceration disparity between African Americans and whites, according to The Justice Policy Institute.

Then there’s the public housing projects component of the legislation, which critics like Holder and Fair would like to see removed completely, although that is not part of their current proposal.

“The fact that housing projects are in there brings the question ‘why?'” Holder said. “You have lower income people of color [living there]. The assumption is largely that those are the people who do drugs, but you know from data, that poor people of color don’t do drugs more than white people.”

If that part of the policy was designed to protect children from drug dealers, it would apply more generally to residential areas-not just public housing-Fair says.

“Are we saying we care more about kids in public housing than in private housing?” she said. “It’s obvious what that policy is about.”

Boucher, who spent 12 years in the House representing the 143rd District prior to becoming a Senator, says that housing project residents in cities like Norwalk welcomed the drug free zones.

“One of the big things was drug dealing going on right under their window,” Boucher said.

LaReese Harvey, a policy reform advocate for A Better Way Foundation, has lived in those parts of Norwalk. She’s also lived in Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford’s North End-a former hotbed for drug activity. She has seen the problem firsthand, and policies that stress enforcement and incarceration, she says, are not the solution.

“If you really want to solve the public safety issue, you need to institute the treatment portion,” Harvey said. “Communities are going to stay unhealthy as long as we have unjust drug laws. You’re just perpetuating it.”

If poverty and unemployment prompted someone to sell drugs in the first place, a criminal record and the job market blacklisting that comes with it will only push them further down that path, Harvey said.

In 2014, the Congressional Research Service released a report highlighting a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 404,638 inmates released from state or federal prisons in 30 states in 2005. More than 75 percent were re-arrested within the proceeding 5-year period. About 77 percent of drug offenders-a rate that was second only to property crimes-were re-arrested during that time frame.

While drug offenders make up 48 percent of the federal prison population, the sale of narcotics and/or hallucinogens creates the second largest segment-991 inmates-of those incarcerated in Connecticut’s system. Those imprisoned for possession of narcotics made up only a third of that.

Malloy’s Second Chance Society spells out intentions to address that. The Governor’s plan calls for the expansion of post-incarceration job training and employment programs, and a smoother pardoning process for nonviolent felons.

Could changes to the enhanced sentencing drug free zones been a part of that? Activists like Fair think so.

“If he’s serious about changing drug policy, start there,” she said.

But Winfield says that the plan, which focuses specifically on nonviolent offenders that were not intending to sell, might risk losing support if an issue that has been framed largely around drug dealing was included.

“When you talk about people dealing drugs, people automatically shut down,” he said. “Because now you have a bad guy.”

But the drug zones do not only impose enhanced sentences on dealers. Possession of drug paraphernalia within 1500 feet of a school or daycare center carries a one-year mandatory minimum. For illegal drugs themselves, the penalty is at least two years. For an intent to sell, the minimum is raised to three years and housing projects are applied to the rule.

While Harvey says that dealing to minors “should have high consequences”, her concern is primarily with how the law impacts users.

“My sister is an addict,” she said. “She doesn’t need to go to jail.”









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