Eliminating harsh penalties for sale of drugs near schools


The New Haven Independent has this piece on some legislation discussed during the recently concluded legislative session. Notable among the bills mentioned was one to eliminate the offense of “sale within 1500 feet of a school zone”.

Another bill People Against Injustice and other grassroots groups around the state supported would have removed 1,500-foot “drug-free zones” around schools, day care centers and public housing. Those arrested on drug charges in such zones receive mandated longer prison sentences; the zones cover practically entire cities around the state.

I missed this – maybe it was just a proposal and not an actual bill – but this absolutely needs to be done. Connecticut is a very small state to begin with and in cities like New Haven and Hartford, it is almost impossible to be somewhere that is not within 1500 feet of a school. For example:

One reform group estimated that the only part of New Haven exempt from coverage under this law is the Yale golf course.

I guess the purpose of the bill was to prevent people selling to school kids, but all it does in reality is penalize those that live and sell within a city. Almost none of the defendants arrested and charged with sale within 1500 are arrested for selling to children.

It’s not like sale of drugs isn’t an offense. It is. Heavily punishable in this state. Sale w/1500 feet is usually tacked on to threaten defendants into taking plea deals that are significantly higher than if there were no charge of sale w/1500 feet. For a normal sale, you can get up to 15 years for a first offense and 30 for a second offense. If you’re not drug-dependent, however, you can get up to life in prison

Good to see then, that Judiciary Committee co-chair Mike Lawlor recognizes this problem:

Lawlor called the 1,500-foot law is a result of the law of unintended consequences. “That law was supposed to address people who sell drugs to kids and near schools. In practice it’s the same penalty no matter where you are so you might as well sell to kids right outside school. It’s an example of how drug laws create racial disparities – I don’t think it was intended – but if you get caught possessing drugs in an urban area the penalties are more severe than if you’re caught in a suburban or rural area. I don’t think there’s an agenda. Legislators just don’t like lowering penalties.” He supported the change, however.

And he’s right. It does discriminate; just like the differing penalties for crack and cocaine discriminate.

Take a look at the map above. It is a map from the New Haven Police Department that they use to chart the “buffer zones”. It is pretty obvious that the whole city is covered. The red squares are Public, Private, Charter, and Head Start Schools. the blue squares are New Haven Housing Authority Projects and the green dots are Daycare Centers (More than 12 children). [The map is part of this 2001 OLR Research Report.]

I mentioned this problem of distance restrictions in the context of residency restrictions for sex offenders a few months ago and I hope that if and when a residency restriction bill is proposed again, Rep. Lawlor keeps in mind that it would create the same problems. By the quote above, if a residency restriction bill were passed, no sex offender could live in the city of New Haven. That’s a problem.

3 thoughts on “Eliminating harsh penalties for sale of drugs near schools

  1. Stephen Gustitis

    I wish they’d get rid of the “drug free zones” in Texas as well. I’ve been practicing 17 years and have yet to see somebody selling drugs to a kid within one of these zones. I never thought of the racial disparity that occurs comparing drug trafficking in urban areas compared to suburban, or rural. Also, Mike Lawlor is right. The “Kick Ass Norps” just hate lowering penalties and cutting people a break. Thanks for your post this morning.

  2. Miranda

    Great post, great idea. The other element to this that really angers me is the controlled buy. Police officers (at least in CT) will often arrange buys at locations they know are within 1500 feet of a prohibited area. I realize the goal is to get the highest level of criminal exposure possible, but I thought the purpose of these laws was to protect kids?? It baffles me that we allow law enforcement to deliberately place dealers and drugs in the very areas our legislature has deemed to be high risk for children. Something’s not right there.

  3. Pingback: Disturbing racial disparities in incarcerated population | a public defender

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