Senate Approves Criminal Justice Overhaul [Courant]

June 4, 2015


Gov. Malloy’s sweeping criminal justice overhaul wins approval in the state Senate

After a brisk debate in the early morning hours of the final day of the legislative session, the Senate endorsed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s comprehensive overhaul of Connecticut’s drug laws.

Malloy has dubbed the initiative the “Second Chance Society,” a name that reflects the governor’s belief that nonviolent offenders deserve a shot at redemption.

The measure reclassifies certain nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors unless there is intent to sell and eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics possession. However, lawmakers scrapped Malloy’s proposal to do away with enhanced penalties for those convicted of possession of narcotics within 1,500 feet of a school.

The bill, one of the Democratic governor’s marque initiatives, passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 22 to 14; it now moves to the House of Representatives, where it also has bipartisan support. The legislature is constitutionally mandated to adjourn at midnight.

The bill provided a brief moment of cooperation on a night when the General Assembly was riven by divisions over the state budget.

Sen. Eric Coleman, co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said the proposal signifies “a new approach and a new attitude toward the administration of criminal justice, particularly for non-violent offenders.” It represents a major retreat from the zero-tolerance philosophy that has dominated criminal justice policy since President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs” in 1982.

Under the bill, drug possession would be classified as a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.

“Let there be no mistake: we have not changed the penalties for sale of drugs at all in this reform,” said Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, ranking Republican on the judiciary committee. “This is dealing with simple possession. Someone’s life should not be over in Connecticut because they plead guilty to a possession charge and this bill gets us down that road.”

The bill also includes an overhaul of the pardons and parole system designed to help ex-offenders secure employment after completing their prison sentences. Senate President Martin Looney noted that Connecticut’s prison population stood at 6,000 in 1980; by 2007, it had swelled to 19,000, although it has dropped significantly since then and now stands at about 16,100. “We have so many people whose prospects have been permanently blighted in so many ways,” Looney said.

When Malloy unveiled the plan at Yale Law School in February, the proposal included a provision to eliminate the enhanced penalty for possession of drugs near schools and day care centers. Critics have long argued that such policies hurt people in densely populated cities.

Republicans and some Democrats, objected to the elimination of the drug-free school zones. In a quest to win their support, the provision was sharply scaled back. “Those drug-free zones remain in place,” Coleman said. “But the enhanced penalties would only apply to the sale of drugs.”

Added Sen. Len Fasano, the chamber’s Republican leader: “There’s still an enhanced penalty within a school zone but not enough to have mandatory minimums. Not enough to take a kid and have them face a felony charge for the rest of their lives because they did something stupid.”

Fasano and Kissel, along with their fellow Republicans, Sens. Kevin Witkos of Canton and Art Linares of Westbrook, voted with the Democratic majority to back the bill. Six Democratic senators — Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Dante Bartolomeo of Meriden, Gayle Slossberg of Milford and Joan Hartley of Waterbury — all voted no.

Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia said the governor’s office appreciates the bipartisan support. Malloy has pointed out that several Republican governors have embraced similar criminal justice proposals. Arch conservative Grover Norquist has also promoted drug sentencing reform and wrote an op-ed piece for the Courant praising Malloy’s plan.

Kissel also commended Malloy for pushing the idea. “It needed some work, it needed some polishing, it needed a lot of input from both sides of the aisle in both chambers but it’s my firm belief that the end product is much better because of that.”

Republican Toni Boucher of Wilton, a strong opponent of looser drug laws, said she wanted to support the bill. But she expressed concern that it would send a negative message to young people that drug abuse was OK. “With all the good that this is trying to accomplish including the reduction of prison time, there also is negative to some of these efforts as well,” she said. “I still find it’s difficfult to pull that lever and vote yes.”

In the House, Republican Leader Themis Klarides said early Wednesday that she backs the revised bill. Klarides had tangled with Malloy last month over the drug-free zones. The governor said residents of cities, most of which are located within the drug-free school zones, should not be treated differently than their suburban and rural counterparts.

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

Klarides reacted with anger, denouncing Malloy’s decision to inject race into the discussion and accusing the governor of bullying techniques.

Another criminal justice bill, which would have required gun owners subject to a temporary restraining order to turn in their firearms, was debated briefly in the Senate Tuesday night. But the controversial measure was put on hold after Republicans filed numerous amendments, including one that would have repealed Connecticut’s gun control law, enacted in the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings.