Fasano Comments on Governor’s Call for Changes to State Drug Laws [Courant]

February 4, 2015

Hartford Courant
NEW HAVEN — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is calling for sweeping changes to the state’s drug laws, including reclassifying certain nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics possession.

The proposals, which the governor outlined Tuesday in a speech at Yale Law School, would sharply curtail the zero-tolerance philosophy that has dominated criminal justice policy since President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs” in 1982.

“We cannot perpetually be a punitive society,” Malloy told an audience of students, professors and political allies. “We have to do better than that. We have to become a second-chance society where we don’t permanently punish nonviolent offenders, swelling our prisons and creating lifetime criminals out of people who made a mistake.”

Malloy is also pushing for an overhaul of the pardons and parole system designed to help ex-offenders secure employment after completing their prison sentences.

“People, particularly young people, make mistakes,” Malloy said. “The road to full citizenship and genuine second chances should not be paved with overly burdensome legal land mines that have stopped too many people from getting the pardons that they would otherwise deserve.”

Malloy’s plan includes classifying drug possession charges as misdemeanors unless there is intent to sell. He is also calling for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, while continuing to allow judges discretion to impose a range of sentences.

And once those sentences are complete, Malloy is seeking an “expedited pardon” process to help ex-offenders achieve full integration into society.

The overhaul unveiled by the governor needs approval from the legislature before it can be implemented. A second set of proposals that would expand supportive housing programs and job training for ex-offenders can be enacted administratively without a vote in the General Assembly.

Malloy’s initiatives come as violent crime in Connecticut is falling and the state’s prison population is decreasing, from about 19,400 in 2008 to about 16,300 now. The state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011, but has not significantly changed the laws regarding other types of narcotics, as other states have.

Malloy is a Democrat, but his proposals are similar to those put forth in Republican-led Georgia, Texas and Alabama.

“When people like [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush, who builds more prison beds than just about anybody else … admits, in essence, that he made a mistake … I think that’s a fairly substantial recognition,” Malloy said. “When a state that executes more people than any other state — Texas — admits that they should treat nonviolent offenders differently, I think that that’s a turning point, as well.”

But, the governor added, “what’s important to me is not the philosophy or the morality of what we’re doing — both argue that we should do it — but it’s actually going to save a substantial amount of money and lower crime by producing fewer professional criminals.”

Len Fasano, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said that Malloy’s proposal “has some good points and some points I disagree with.”

Fasano said he is “willing to have a conversation” with the governor on the plan to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of nonviolent narcotics possession.

“I’m willing to talk to him about the idea of giving judges some discretion” in sentencing, Fasano said. “It’s a question of how we get there. I’d like to sit down with him and [Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning] and figure out how we can find common ground.”

But Fasano said he believes that completely scrapping enhanced penalties for those convicted of possession of narcotics within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center or public housing project could be a mistake.

He also questioned one of Malloy’s bedrock arguments — that a low-level drug violation, often committed by an individual in his or her teens or early 20s, can have a lasting effect on the offender’s future.

“That’s not really rooted in what happens in our court system,” Fasano said.

Most nonviolent, first-time offenders wind up in a diversionary program, he said.

“On your first or even second [offense], you don’t usually end up with a conviction,” he said.

Although Fasano has not read all the details of the governor’s plan regarding housing and employment training for ex-offenders, he said he is supportive of the goal. “I agree with him that housing is an issue,” Fasano said. “Nobody should be homeless.”

The Senate Republican caucus will roll out its own plan to revitalize cities, including criminal justice and job creation proposals, in coming weeks, Fasano said. The GOP plan will include job-training and other state Department of Correction vocational programs to ensure that “people getting out of the system have a skill set they can bring to the table,” he said.

Elements of Malloy’s proposal, including a plan to eliminate the enhanced penalty for possession of drugs near schools and day care centers, have been kicking around the legislature for years. But each time, the ideas failed to gain the traction needed to become law.

Malloy, a former New York City prosecutor, repeatedly pointed out that he is not proposing lesser sentences for those convicted of possession with intent to sell or selling narcotics.

“I know that some will be critical of these proposals,” he said. “They’ll say we are coddling people who break the law, that we’re letting them off too easily.”

“Hey, listen, I’m not a stranger to being tough on crime,” he added, alluding to his years in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, where he says he won convictions in 22 of 23 felony cases. “I put violent offenders behind bars for many years.”

Malloy said that his proposals will allow prosecutors and the court system to focus on serious criminals instead of low-level drug offenders who present no danger to their communities.

“The reforms I am proposing today will make our communities, all our communities, safer,” he said.