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March 25, 2006 - New Haven Register (CT)

Hearing Debates Merits, Drawbacks Of 'Drug-Free Zones'

By Gregory B. Hladky , Capitol Bureau Chief

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HARTFORD - Connecticut's "drug-free zone" law is ineffective in combating drug crime and unfair to minority urban residents who have become its primary targets, critics of the law argued Friday.

"What we're asking for is equity," said Barbara Fair, of the New Haven-based People Against Injustice group.

A bill that would reduce the size of drug-free zones around schools, day-care centers and public housing projects from the current 1,500 feet to 200 feet was the focus of debate at a legislative public hearing Friday.

Fair and other activists said the existing law, which specifies mandatory minimum prison terms for anyone caught selling or possessing drugs within the zones, has contributed to the massive racial disparity in Connecticut prisons.

Dawn Fuller Ball, of Alliance Connecticut, said the incarceration rate for blacks in this state is 13 times the rate for whites.

There are so many drug-free zones in densely populated urban centers that they now cover nearly all cities like New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.

The activists claim that since the mandatory sentences now apply to virtually an entire city, drug dealers simply ignore the zones.

However, Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano insisted that the proposed change "essentially guts the drug-free zones" and "sends the wrong message to those who are committing the violence and turning neighborhoods into battle zones."

"This is not about addressing social, economic or racial injustice," Morano said during his testimony before the legislature's Judiciary Committee, "but rather about standing up for the innocent, law-abiding citizens -- especially the most vulnerable -- and standing together against those who would break the law."

Supporters of the proposed change pointed to studies showing that very few drug arrests on school grounds have been made in Connecticut since the drug-free zone law went into effect.

"I'm so tired of hearing that same old rhetoric about soft on crime," said Fair.

She said the war on drugs has effectively become "a war on the poor."

Sally Joughin of New Haven said the law is being used to force black and Hispanic residents to agree to plea bargains in order to avoid the stiff mandatory sentences.

She called the effect of the law "discrimination against those who live in urban areas."

Gregory B. Hladky can be contacted at or (860) 524-0719.

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