A bipartisan effort is underway in the Connecticut General Assembly to address reports of racial disparities in the ways that drug laws are enforced and prosecuted, according to Mike Lawlor, House chairman of the Assembly's judiciary committee. Studies conducted for the Assembly's Office of Legislative Research have found that African Americans, who constitute only 8 percent of Connecticut's population, make up 39 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 58% of drug convictions. Whites account for 62 percent of the population and nearly 50 percent of drug arrests, but only 11 percent of convictions.
"I think it's no secret that in recent years, racial tensions have been exacerbated around the criminal justice system," Lawlor told the Week Online. "Between the racial profiling on the highways, some of the recent police shootings, and what's clearly a huge disparity in the prison population. We know that there's a problem. People can disagree about what has caused it and what might solve it, but for the moment at least we know that this crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system is undermining the system's ability to function properly."
Lawlor said the Assembly hopes to change both the perception and the reality of the problem without affecting public safety by increasing funding for programs with proven effectiveness, like drug courts, community-based diversion treatment, and drug treatment within prisons. On the enforcement level, he said, the Assembly is working with police to develop alternatives to arrest, such as writing referrals to drug treatment. In terms of the courts, he said, "We're talking about giving the judges more discretion with mandatory minimum penalties."
Lawlor said the bi-partisan atmosphere of legislative work on drug policy in Connecticut doesn't surprise him, but he realizes it's unique given the tenor of the debate on the national stage. "My experience has been that behind closed doors, even the most outspoken drug warriors will acknowledge that 'it's not doing any good, but we have to be tough on crime.' But wouldn't you rather be doing something that's going to work?" In Connecticut, he said, "we have an unusual coalition of frustrated police officers, crime victims, conservative republicans and liberal democrats, all saying that we could do a much better job if we could just de-politicize this issue a little."
Nick Pastore, research fellow in police policy for the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and former police chief of New Haven, Connecticut, applauded the efforts by the Assembly. "We can prove fiscally, as well as developmentally, that alternatives to incarceration work. And 'alternatives to incarceration' starts a philosophical mind-change that breaks away from the mind set of draconian, lock 'em up punishment." He said he hopes this will lead to real changes in policing. "The way the police do business in America has to be continually under the microscope. We've got to say we're going change the way we do police work, and especially how we treat people with different backgrounds -- including people who have been arrested."
The Connecticut Law Revision
Commission, empaneled by the General Assembly, conducts an ongoing review
of state statutes. Their reports and recommendations are on the web
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation is on the web at http://www.cjpf.org.
You'll also find an interview with Nick Pastore from the Spring, 1998 issue
of the Drug Policy Letter on the DRCNet web site, at http://www.drcnet.org/cops/.