Plan to cut drug penalties gains steam in Connecticut legislature [Middletown Press]

June 1, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Middletown Press

The governor’s signature legislation around a Second Chance Society that takes away a mandatory penalty and felony status for possession of drugs is expected to advance in both chambers in a bipartisan effort.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to join a number of red states that have changed their drug laws on simple possession as a way to reduce incarceration, particularly for an offense that has disparate consequences for minority populations.

The aim is to take away the mandatory two-year penalty for possession of a drug within 1,500 feet of a school, which in Connecticut covers almost all the geographic area of its urban centers, and drop it to a misdmeanor.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, in an amendment after working with state Rep. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, agrees that simple possession should be a misdeameanor.

His proposal, which was also signed by House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, delineates that a first offense for possession warrants a referral for participation in a rehab program while a second offense would be treated as a misdemeanor and participation in a drug program.

A subsequent offense, however, could be prosecuted as a misdeameanor, but there is also the possibility that it could warrant a felony charge if the court decides it, with a prison term of a minimum of two years.

The penalities for sale of narcotics and possession with intent to sell would remain the same under both the proposal approved by the Judiciary Committee and the proposal by Fasano.

The Judiciary Committee proposal also states that a person possessing drugs on school property who is not enrolled there would be guilty of a class E felony and a maximum three-year sentence.

Fasano’s proposal for the same offense leaves open the possibility of a misdemeanor, but if prosecutors treat it as a felony, there would be a two-year mandatory sentence.

The Republican minority leader also proposes tougher penalities for persons with larger amounts of drugs in their possession.

Sources working on the bill said some technical changes are necessary to Fasano’s proposal, that it would have to be more specific when a felony charge kicked in, but there is no disagreement on tougher penalties for larger amounts of drugs.

Winfield said he has no problem with a mandatory penalty after a third arrest for possession.

“That would be OK with me,” he said, as long at the mandatory penalty is not attached to the first offense.

Winfield said “it gives us movement, which we don’t have now,” as far as getting the legislation to a vote in the House and the Senate before its midnight adjournment Tuesday night.

Across the country, states are dropping penalties for possession of drugs to reduce the number of people, particularly minorities, who end up with felony records that negatively impact where they can live and who will hire them.

Stephen Glassman, executive director of the state ACLU, has said the current law discriminates against people “on the basis of their race or economic status.”

State Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the details were still being discussed and would need further review by Judiciary Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, and state Rep. William Tong, D- Stamford.

Looney said the more substantive changes are with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which will have 10 full-time members (up from six) to cover an increased workload.

This will allow it to streamline hearings and make the process more efficient. There is expected to be creation of optional hearings for cases involving low-level, nonviolent individuals, bringing it in line with other states.

Other aspects of the Second Chance Society include an expansion of post-prison employment programs and investments in supportive housing for individuals who repeatedly cycle in and out of prison.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated the state will save $6.6 million in the next fiscal year and $12.4 million in fiscal 2017 through these bills.

Reducing penalties for felony drug possession to misdemeanors is expected to cut the prison population by 1,120 inmates and allow the closing of a facility in 2017.

Both the Democratic proposed budget and one offered by the GOP incorporate these savings into the biennium budget they have to vote on before Tuesday at midnight.

The discussion had veered off track when Malloy said the intent of these laws may not have been racist but the outcome has been. This was interpreted as charging opponents of the bill with being racist.

“To treat these folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome,” Malloy said earlier this month.