“2nd Chance” Backed For Users, Not Dealers [NH Independent]

May 15, 2015

New Haven Independent

Standing on one of New Haven’s only non-“drug-free” zones, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called for Connecticut’s criminal-justice system to stop discriminating against urban drug users—while leaving urban drug-dealers out of the conversation for now.

Malloy made the stop at the Hannah’s Dream playground at East Shore Park to plug the latest piece of his “Second Chance Society” initiative aimed at helping ex-offenders reenter society rather than return to crowded jails.

His latest proposal would eliminate extra penalties for possessing drugs in a “drug-free zone” within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center or public-housing developoment.

As Malloy pointed out (on a map), those zones cover almost every inch of cities like New Haven because of population density. Only East Shore Park and the Yale Golf Course lay outside those zones, Malloy said.

As a result, someone caught with more than four ounces of pot, for instance, or a bag of crack will serve more time in jail if he or she is in New Haven than if he or she is caught in most parts of suburban and rural towns. Current law requires a minimum two-year jail sentence for school-zone possession arrests. Given that cities have larger black and Latino populations, that means blacks and Latinos disproportionately serve longer sentences. One estimate showed whites accounting 70 percent of the state’s population, yet just 28 percent of drug-free zone arrests. (Click here for an in-depth look at “What happens when an entire city becomes a drug-free zone.”)

Malloy’s proposal would limit drug-free zones to just school grounds, rather than the adjoining 1,500 feet of property. It would also change felony drug possession to a misdemeanor. Click here for the details of that proposal as well as Malloy’s complete “Second Chance Society” package.

Malloy said his proposal would keep 500 non-violent people out of jail at any one time, save the state millions of dollars a year, and give those arrestees a better chance of dealing with addiction and leading more productive lives.

New Haven criminal-justice reformers have pushed for such a law for years—not just for possession, but for dealing as well. The current law requires mandatory minimum sentences for both possessing and selling drugs in the zones, including three years for dealing.

New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield has for a couple of years proposed banning the drug-free zones for both dealing and possession. He didn’t attend Wednesday’s press conference, but in an interview he applauded Malloy for pushing the issue forward with the half measure. Winfield noted that his broader proposal didn’t even make it to a committee hearing at the legislature this session. It did get a hearing in 2014, then died in committee.

State NAACP President Scot X Esdaile joined Malloy at the East Shore press conference to pledge to organize support for the measure.

“I want to commend the governor for taking this head on,” Esdaile said. “Many lives have been destroyed” by discriminatory drug laws, not just the lives of arrestees, but their children.

Before the press conference, Esdaile said he’d like to see dealers covered by the change as well. But he he called Malloy’s proposal a good first step.

So did Mayor Toni Harp. “It should be on both [dealers and buyers]—one drives the other,” she said. But she said she wholeheartedly supports Malloy’s proposal and understands” the politics.

Those politics include not just accusations form Republicans that Democrat Malloy is going soft on crime—but, as CT Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas pointed out to the governor at Wednesday’s press conference, decisions by fellow Democrats to duck voting on the measure.

Malloy responded that Connecticut Democrats need to develop a spine on drug-law reform when Republican governors from Utah to South Carolina to New Jersey have all been enacting similar measures to stop stuffing jail cells with nonviolent prisoners. The bipartisan push for reversing lock-‘em-up drug laws is being called a “Kumbaya moment” across the country …
… though not necessarily in Connecticut.

“Now if you want to run as a Democrat saying, ‘I’m in favor of discriminating against people based on where they live and in part based on the color of their skin,’ then you should be proud to run on that as a Democrat or a Republican. ’ I don’t think anybody is going to do that.”

At the press conference Wednesday, Malloy read quotations from Republicans attacking his proposal for allegedly protecting dealers who sell cocaine on school grounds. He accused the critics of demagoguery and stressed: “We are not changing the laws about selling drugs at all.”

However, one leading Republican said he’s with Malloy, on principle.

That Republican, State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, said Wednesday afternoon that he agrees that for purposes of possession, “we shouldn’t treat the whole city of New Haven as a drug-free zone.” Fasano said he might differ with Malloy on some details: Some area close to the school, such as right across the street, should still be included, he said. And he would like to see a lower cut-off for the amount of drugs to be considered as showing an intent to sell.

“We have to talk about some details. But I understand his principle,” Fasano said of the governor. He also agreed with Malloy that the proposal should not cover dealers: “I’m not looking to cut any dealer, any distributor any break. I am looking to help kids who made bad decisions to get the guidance. I have no pity for the dealer.” Fasano subsequently issued a press release criticizing the governor for accusing some Republicans of “racially motivated” opposition to his plan.

Asked at the press conference about whether dealers should also receive a “second chance,” Malloy said that other aspects of his initiative—speeding up the parole and pardon processes—“speak to that.”

One longtime advocate of reform, Anthony Dawson, who chairs New Haven’s Board of Police Commissioners, said Malloy is right on the merits not to include dealers in the bill.

As a former alderman, Dawson noted, he pushed for similar extra penalties for dealers. “We don’t want it being sold anywhere in our neighborhoods,” he said. He called the drug-free zone penalties on dealers “another tool to keep it out.”

Even the head of the state ACLU, Stephen Glassman (pictured), made an argument for exempting dealers from the bill. “I’m focused on … the need to treat people therapeutically” rather than locking them up for drug addiction, he said. ““I don’t want to get into the issue of selling. Obviously selling should be illegal.”