2nd Chance moves ahead [Journal Inquirer]

April 10, 2015

By Mike Savino Journal Inquirer | Posted: Friday, April 10, 2015 11:33 am

HARTFORD — The legislature’s Judiciary Committee today approved Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” proposal after adding an amendment that alters the size of drug-free zones around schools.

The amendment, which passed by a 22-19 vote, eliminates the 1,500-foot zone around schools that results in higher penalties for simple drug possession.

If approved in the legislature, the bill — which otherwise would reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor — would make possession of drugs on the property of a school punishable by up to three years in prison or $3,500 fine.

The 1,500-foot zone remains in place for the sale or distribution of drugs, and the offense still carries a mandatory minimum of three years in prison.

Malloy’s proposal overall passed by a similarly close margin after the committee voted on the bill at approximately 12:45 a.m.

Republicans warned that the Second Chance Society proposal, as well as the amendment, would weaken the state’s ability to suppress the drug trade, particularly in the cities.

“We’ve done too much too quickly in Connecticut,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “While this may save money in our prisons, I think we’re going to be paying for it in the long run and I would hate to see us chase our tail.”

By reclassifying nonviolent drug possession offenses as misdemeanors, Malloy’s proposal would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.

The bill also would streamline the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Malloy has said he wants to designate one prison as a “reintegration center” for those leaving the prison system.

Republicans, though, said the state’s court system already offers special forms of probation and diversionary programs that allow defendants to avoid prison time or convictions.

“This is in no way at all a second chance society, this is a third, fourth, fifth chance society,” Rep. Stephen G. Harding, R-Brookfield, said.

Others said the amendment specifically addressing the restricted zone around schools would result in an increase number of students possessing drugs.

“What are we doing here? We’re going backwards,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.

But many advocates have argued that inner city residents are especially hurt by the existence of drug free zones around schools, public housing, and other protected sites spread throughout a city.

Committee co-Chairman Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said neither the bill nor the amendment take away enhanced penalties for anyone selling or distributing drugs within the existing prohibited areas.

He also disagreed with Republican claims that the proposal would equate to a “get-out-of-jail” free card by reclassifying offenses as a misdemeanor.

“There is no get out of jail associated with this bill,” he said, adding that Class A misdemeanors still are punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

Co-Chairman Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, agreed, saying the amendment in particular is “smart on crime.”

Some Republicans said they also were worried the bill would limit prosecutors’ ability to plea bargain in cases involving more serious drug offenses.

Boucher said the end result would be more residents addicted to drugs, and any savings the state might see through this bill would need to go toward other programs.

But Coleman said felony convictions for simple drug possession also can have a significant impact on people, and ultimately society.

He even said the observations Boucher made about addicts — that they can be directionless, unemployed, unkempt, angry, and withdrawn — also can be easily applied to people who can’t turn their lives around because of such a conviction.

“There are social costs to the way we’ve approached possession of drugs, and prosecutions and sentencings and convictions of possession of drugs,” he said.

Coleman said there are roughly 500 people in the state’s prisons due to simple drug possession charges, including 200 who are being held in pretrial detention.