Misconceptions about sentencing enhancement zones persist in Conn. Legislature

by Aleks Kajstura, April 4, 2014

As I watched the Connecticut Judiciary Committee’s discussion of sentence enhancement zone reform (SB 259) before its successful vote on Wednesday (SB 259 begins at 02:09:35), I was struck by how many Connecticut legislators continue to support an over-reaching, diluted, version of the state’s sentencing enhancement law. It’s frustrating to see that legislators who have had years to study this issue still misunderstand both, the law’s function and the bill to strengthen it.

Senator Kissell explained the long-held support for the law in his region of the state (at 02:12:15):

Former Rep. Bill Kiner, who was in the House of Representatives over 20 years ago, helped champion the underlying law. And, at least in my neck of the woods… when I said, “Well, should the whole state have that enhanced penalty?” They said, “Sure!” …. [R]educing the distance to the schools goes in the wrong direction… They [constituents] don’t want us to weaken the underlying laws.

It may be counter-intuitive, but by shrinking the zones, the bill would actually strengthen the law. The law relies on the protected spaces to have harsher sentences than other areas. But the 1,500-foot distance, creates no such protected spaces, because nearly entire cities are covered – leaving no specially protected area around schools. The effect is in essence no different than what Sen. Kissell’s constituents say they want, everywhere having an “enhanced penalty”. But when everywhere has an enhanced penalty, then that’s just the penalty, there is nothing “enhanced” about it. If the legislature would like to reconsider the penalties for drug offenses that’s a separate question, but the mechanism of this law, meant to protect children from drug activity, relies on additional – enhanced – penalties around specific protected places.

Sen. Kissell concluded (at 12:18:02) that: “there’s not an easy answer to this… because on the one hand, I think that we want to be fair and even handed but on the other hand we don’t want to say that ‘we are ok with people selling drugs’ and ‘let’s cut back the barriers’…. I’m not so sure that enhancing penalties but reducing the distance gets us to where we wanna go”

I disagree, the bill actually does present a simple answer without giving the message that the legislature would be “ok with people selling drugs”. This bill would not legalize any drug offense. The sentences for the underlying offense would remain unchanged, and the bill would in fact concentrate the state’s enforcement resources around schools to actually protect kids from drug activity. As Representative Meyer explained (at 02:28:40):

When you charge a person, an adult selling drugs to another adult, more than a quarter mile from the school and when the law, as this law does, imposes a mandatory a one year extra imprisonment… it doesn’t relate any longer to creating a school safety zone….

…in concept it’s very important to create a school safety zone, but once you make it 1,500 feet and you’re having one adult selling to another and it doesn’t involve school safety in any respect… [T]he Sentencing Commission is bringing us some reality here and actually is making the school safety penalty stronger by its proposal and now by this bill.

Sen. Kissell points to arrests as proof that the law works (at 02:15:57). But in fact, these arrests prove the law doesn’t work, in several ways. First, the law is meant to move drug offenses out of these zones, so if the law worked, we would see few arrests in the zones (and possibly more outside the zones as the law’s deterrent effect takes hold). Arrests inside the zones prove that the law is not working to move those activities elsewhere. Second, to have a better sense of the law’s imact we need to look at the type of arrests made, not just their number. Sen. Kissell stated (at 02:16:47) that “If the argument is that … people are being put behind bars, then it [the law] is having some kind of impact.” Sure, the law has an impact, but the question is: does it have the desired impact?

The goal of the law is to keep drug activity away from children, but as Rep. Meyer hinted at, nearly all of the arrests do not involve students – and those that do, involve only students (in one case a few students sitting outside the school smoking marijuana). Reducing the zones to the 200 feet proposed by the bill would allow the law to have a meaningful impact by setting aside specific uniquely protected spaces. Connecticut would still maintain serious penalties for drug offenses, and the extra mandatory minimum penalty would be reserved for those offenses committed near a school.

For more information about the law and proposed solutions, check out our sentencing enhancement issue page, and my recent report.

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