Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jul 2013
Source: News-Times, The (Danbury, CT)
Copyright: 2013 The News-Times
Author: Libor Jany


Brian Guyton might have gotten off easy, even after being caught with 
drugs and a thick wad of cash, had he not run afoul of a state law 
that calls for harsher sentences for dealers who sell near places 
where children gather.

Late last month, a Danbury police detective saw what he believed to 
be a hand-to-hand drug deal between Guyton and an unidentified woman 
at the corner of Kohanza Street and Dogwood Drive, which is less than 
1,000 feet from Danbury High School. The detective followed Guyton, 
18, to a nearby gas station and searched the vehicle he was riding in 
for drugs, according to a police report of the incident.

The report stated the detective found a digital scale, $400 cash, and 
a miniscule amount of marijuana -- less than half an ounce -- and 
arrested Guyton, who admitted the drugs were his. Guyton was booked 
on charges of marijuana possession and possession of drug 
paraphernalia, and held on $5,000 bond. In addition, he was charged 
with selling in a so-called drug-free zone.

The law establishing such zones was designed to prevent drug dealers 
from setting up shop near schools, where they could prey upon 
children. Later, it was expanded to include day care centers and 
public housing projects. Anyone caught with drugs in one of the zones 
would receive an additional sentence of two years in prison. A person 
convicted of selling drugs near a school or housing project would 
draw a three-year mandatory minimum sentence, on top of his or her 
sentence for the underlying charges.

Similar laws have been passed in other states, but Connecticut's is 
considered among the toughest in the nation.

Critics say the law disproportionately affects black and Latino 
offenders living in larger cities, such as Hartford, New Haven and 
even Danbury, where the zones cover nearly every street corner.

In their eyes, wide racial disparities in incarceration in 
Connecticut are an unintended by-product of the law.

The state incarcerates Latinos at a higher rate than every state 
except Pennsylvania and Idaho, according to report by the Sentencing 
Project, a research organization that advocates for drug-law reform.

"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, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and 
planning at Connecticut'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."

On the other hand, he said, suburban communities like Ridgefield and 
New Milford, that tend to be more spread out and racially 
homogeneous, have fewer places where the zones overlap.

"I think almost everybody agrees that the effect of this law is to 
exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system," he said.

The Sentencing Project found that 65 percent of those convicted of 
offenses in drug-free zones are black.

A recently tabled bill would have shrunk the zones to 300 feet, a 
proposal the organization said would affect 15 percent of all drug 
offenses in the state and save taxpayers millions in incarceration costs.

But, Danbury Police Chief Alan Baker said the enhanced penalties have 
helped curb drug dealing in the state's seventh-largest city by 
keeping dealers off the streets longer. Most offenders, he said, 
would think twice before peddling drugs near schools.

Lawlor, a longtime proponent of repealing the law, said the point of 
the law was to create a deterrent to selling drugs near a school, and 
now that whole point has been defeated, because every point is near a 
school in Hartford or New Haven."

Given the law's broad scope, he said, a drug dealer in Danbury would 
hardly be dissuaded from operating near a school since the penalty 
for getting caught would be the same if he were elsewhere.

The state Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee 
wrote in a recent study: "Mandatory minimum sentencing laws were 
intended to deter offenders and thereby reduce crime (and curb drug 
use). Criminal justice research and sentencing experts have found and 
Connecticut criminal justice administrators agree, however, that 
mandatory minimum sentencing laws achieve few of their stated 
substantive objectives and do not work. However, mandatory minimum 
penalties are an effective and efficient prosecutorial tool to 
negotiate pleas and sentences and, as a result, very few offenders 
are actually convicted of offenses subject to mandatory minimum penalties."

Guyton had no previous criminal record, but under state law he could 
face an additional five years in prison if convicted. Yet, cases like 
his usually result in plea bargains in which the defendant pleads 
guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence, said 
Angelica Papastavros, a public defender in Danbury.

After years of defending people accused of drug offenses in New 
Haven, Papastavros said she believe the law is unjust and should be amended.

"I think the law targets individuals that live in the cities and in 
urban areas, and the laws need to be applied even-handedly."
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