Connecticut drug-free zone laws blanket minority neighborhoods but fail to deter drug activity

Connecticut ranks at the top in the nation in the degree of disparity between the rates of incarceration for whites and blacks. The state’s drug-free zone laws contribute to that disparity by blanketing densely populated urban neighborhoods with prohibited zones. Yet new research shows that the laws do nothing to protect in youth from drug activity

Connecticut ranks at the top in the nation in the degree of disparity between the rates of incarceration for whites and blacks. Many who advocate for racial justice believe that the state’s mandatory minimum drug laws – including statutes that enhance penalties for offenses that take place in prohibited zones – play a major role in fostering that racial disparity.

Connecticut's drug-free zone laws affect manufacture, sale, and possession of a drug or drug paraphernalia within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center, or public housing unit. The mandatory penalties were designed to operate as sentencing enhancements, and are imposed on top of whatever sentence a person receives for the underlying drug offense.

A three-year mandatory minimum sentence is provided for a non-drug-dependent person who sells drugs within 1,500 feet of an elementary or secondary school, a public housing project, or a licensed child day care center. A mandatory two-year prison term is provided for anyone, other than a student enrolled in the school, who possesses illegal drugs in, on, or within 1,500 feet of an elementary or secondary school or licensed child day care center.

The staff of the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee found little evidence that the laws serve their intended purpose to protect youth from drug activity. Analysis of hundreds of Connecticut drug-free zone cases identified just three cases of sales to minors – all involving students arrested on school grounds. Most of the sales occurred outside traditional school hours.

Committee staff further concluded that there has been no appreciable decline in drug use or drug trafficking since the introduction of mandatory drug laws in the state. In fact, arrests are on the increase. Their findings are consistent with results from research conducted in neighboring New Jersey and Massachusetts. New Jersey’s sentencing commission conducted a thorough review of that state’s drug-free zone laws and found no deterrent effect.

Arrests for Mandatory Minimum Drug Offenders

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by drug-free school zone laws. Densely populated urban neighborhoods, where people of color are more likely to live, are blanketed by prohibited zones, while rural and suburban neighborhoods are less affected. Connecticut cities where the majority of residents are nonwhite have ten times more zones per square mile than localities where less than 10 percent of residents are black or Hispanic. Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven are almost totally covered with drug-free zones.

State lawmakers have responded to calls from community activists by proposing legislation that would reduce the scope of the zones from 1,500 to 200 feet, and would require postings to mark the boundaries.

Portions of this story were previously published in Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity – and fail to protect youth. Click here for more information on drug-free zone laws.