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Criminal Sentencing Reform for Latinos Eludes Legislators

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Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield introduced a bill aimed at cutting down the distance mandating a prison sentence for drug crimes committed near schools. (Photo by CT House Dems)

By Wayne Jebian
CTLatinoNews.com

The Black and Latino Caucus was met with disappointment in the 2013 session of the Connecticut General Assembly over legislation addressing extreme disparities in criminal sentencing and the number of Latino and black inmates in state correctional facilities. The most influential bill, one that could have cut down on mandatory prison sentences issued to Latinos targeting school drug zone laws, did not make it out of the House or Senate by the end of the session.

A failed proposal would have changed the law requiring mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses that occur within 1,500 feet of a school by lessening the distance. The current distance subjects many residents of dense cities to penalties that few suburban or rural residents face, according to representative Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven), who introduced the bill.

On the final Thursday of the session the bill died after two hours of debate. The following week, the Senate failed to vote on two related bills before adjourning for the year. There was substantial Republican opposition,” explained Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams. Williams said that with the clock running down at the end of the session, the Senate had to prioritize bills that would be less time-consuming. He said that he hoped the General Assembly would take the issue on again when it reconvenes next year.

During a press conference addressing a bill targeting drug-free school zone laws, a key issue in the criminal sentencing disparity issue, immediately before the House session that would bring the bill to a vote, Representative Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) pointed out the disproportionate amount of Latinos that make up Connecticut’s prison population. Latinos make up 26 percent of the state’s prison population, 28 percent of inmates serving more than 10 years, and 23 percent of inmates serving over 50 years, he said. According to the last census report, Latinos comprised 13.4 percent of the state’s population.

That Thursday in the chamber of the State House of Representatives, as Holder-Winfield argued for the reduction of the drug-free school zones from 1,500 feet to 300 feet, House Republicans demonstrated greater unity in their opposition to the bill than the Democrats could muster in support of it. Although they hold a minority of seats in the General Assembly, Republican after Republican stood up to assert that the bill “sends the wrong message” about drugs and crime. After two hours of debate, the House tabled the bill so that they could move on to other business.

When we got to the point where we could vote on it, it was clear that the support was eroding,” said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. “Rather than put it up for a vote and have it fail, it was better to take a step back, re-group a bit on it, maybe do a bit more education about it, of all of our members, and go from there.”

Candelaria remained positive, looking to the future, saying, “We’ll have a crack at it next year.”

Representative Douglas McCrory (D-Hartford) said that this kind of law, passed at the height of the War on Drugs in the late 1980s, resulted in “the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States.”

A similar situation occurred in the New Jersey State Assembly, when it took up a bill to roll back the school zones to 200 feet, according to Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We couldn’t get that passed,” she said. “The distance was a sticking point for legislators.”

At the end of the day, we went back and drafted a new bill,” said Scotti. “This bill gave judges discretion to waive the mandatory minimum and the enhanced sentence. That sort of framing worked well with our legislature, and we ended up getting bipartisan support.”

When asked if he would consider adopting this strategy for next year, Candelaria said it “could be a possibility.”

The disparities were even more stark for black inmates, who comprised 42 percent of the total prison population. According to Candelaria, the population of inmates sentenced to over 10 years was 60 percent black, over 50 years – 69 percent black, and of those serving life sentences, 100 percent black (four inmates).

Representative McCrory referred to The New Jim Crow”, a book by Michelle Alexander.  Alexander recently spoke at Emmanuel Congregational Church in Hartford. In a presentation recorded by National Public Radio, Alexander talked about how racial disparities were no accident, but rather a political strategy focusing on “law and order” to attract white voters in the 1970s – a political strategy that would evolve into the War on Drugs.

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