As with many criminal laws, lawmakers' heart were likely in the right place when they decided to increase criminal penalties in areas that children frequent. But the law has had unintended effects, serving to exacerbate racial disparities in the Connecticut prison system, by penalizing Hispanics and Blacks at a higher rate than their counterparts, simply because of where they live.
The law increases the potential sentence of someone found with drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, housing project, or daycare. That increase is two years on top of the criminal sentence they already face if they are charged with possession, or three additional years if it's for distribution. Originally, it was designed to prevent drug dealers from vending their wares near schools. But in some places, it heightens penalties everywhere.
School Zone penalties in cities like New Haven, Hartford, and Danbury, nearly every single block is within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, or housing project. So residents of those cities are automatically facing harsher sentences.
As the News Times reports, “wide racial disparities in incarceration in Connecticut are an unintended by-product of the law.”
This law is considered the toughest of its kind in the nation. It translates to sending someone with an otherwise negligible amount of marijuana, for instance, into the prison system for multiple years, creating an inmate out of someone who may have not been selling drugs to children at all.
“One thing we know for sure is that there's a dramatic over-representation of African Americans and Latinos in our prison system. We know that blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate,” said Mike Lawlor of the state's Office of Policy and Management. “We know that if an African American or Latino gets arrested for a drug violation, they're much more likely to be sent to prison than a white person.”
Critics tried to change the law, reducing the affected area by those within 300 feet of a protected zone. But the bill was tabled.
Supporters say the law has decreased drug activities in school zones. But critics rightfully point out that in cities where protected zones are nearly everywhere, there's no incentive to try and get any further away from a school.
When a law unequally targets a certain demographic—as this one does people in urban areas, and therefore a greater percentage of minorities—it is a failure. Criminal laws should be applied fairly across the board.
If you are facing criminal charges for drug possession or drug distribution, call immediately for a free consultation to discuss your legal defense options.