On Friday, Connecticut state legislators killed a proposal to shrink the size of its drug-free zones from 1500 to 200 feet. The bill was defeated 17 to 11 in a vote by the Education Committee.
Connecticut has one of the most expansive drug-free zone laws in the country, meaning that many of its cities are almost entirely covered by “sentence enhancement zones.” The laws mean an extra charge or longer sentence for any drug crime committed within a certain radius of a school, in effort to deter drug dealers from selling to students. But researchers have found the zones instead create an added “urban penalty” for any level drug offender who happens to live in a city.
The laws also have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Data analyzed by ThinkProgress suggests that whites account for only 27 percent of Connecticut’s drug-free zone arrests, but make up 70 percent of the state’s population.
Lawmakers opposed to shrinking the zones were concerned about what kind of message it would send to both students and drug dealers. “Let’s not give kids mixed signals on whether drug use close to school grounds is not as bad as it used to be,” said state representative Mitch Bolinsky in a press release on the bill’s defeat. “The current 1500 feet school drug zone works for a great number of our towns in Connecticut.”
Advocates working to reform the law say there’s been a divide between legislators representing urban and suburban communities. “Nobody wants to be seen as supporting drug dealers,” said community organizer LaResse Harvey of A Better Way Foundation, as to why the bill has faced such resistance. “To me, a lot of the Democrats who live in semi-rural, conservative areas are afraid they’re going to lose their seat.”
State lawmakers voted in 1992 to expand it from 1,000 to 1,500 feet and include public housing in the list of facilities with a buffer zone.
There was no discussion of the bill before the vote and “it just kind of died a little, lonely, pitiful death,” the bill’s sponsor State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield told CT News Junkie. Holder-Winfield has tried to pass some version of the law since 2009, and says he will introduce the legislation again next year.
Holder-Winfield represents New Haven, a city almost entirely covered by drug-free zones. Roughly 70 percent of the city is people of color, and 27 percent live below the poverty line — compared to just 10 percent of all Connecticut residents.
Holder-Winfield knew the bill faced an uphill battle, but said each year he introduces it, more people begin to understand the true toll of drug-free zones. “You have to keep pushing, recognizing that as you go youre going to be vilified,” he said. “But if its the right policy you have to take however many years it takes to get the word out.”