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Race & Justice News: Connecticut Struggles to Reform Drug-Free-Zone Law

June 18, 2015
The Connecticut legislature was unable to move forward with a vote on Governor Dannel Malloy’s proposed Second Chance Society reforms, a bill which would have downgraded certain felony drug possession offenses to misdemeanors, reduced parole hurdles for people with non-violent convictions, and increased re-entry opportunities for those with non-violent convictions.

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Connecticut Struggles to Reform Drug-Free-Zone Law

The Connecticut legislature was unable to move forward with a vote on Governor Dannel Malloy’s proposed Second Chance Society reforms, reports the Hartford Courant. The bill would have downgraded certain felony drug possession offenses to misdemeanors, reduced parole hurdles for people with non-violent convictions, and increased re-entry opportunities for those with non-violent convictions. Legislators balked at the bill’s initial attempt to eliminate all sentencing enhancements for drug possession within 1,500 feet of schools and day care centers. As the Wall Street Journal demonstrated, this law disproportionately impacts people of color, who are more likely than whites to live in dense areas such as Bridgeport, which are nearly blanketed by the sentencing enhancement.

CT school zone law

In advocating for the reform, Gov. Malloy stated that “treating those folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and, if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome.” Legislators did not support the original version of the bill, which sought to downgrade all drug possession offenses within drug-free-zones from a felony to a misdemeanor. An amended bill restricts the felony classification to within the grounds of schools and day care centers and removes the two-year mandatory minimum sentence. The House is expected to convene a special session this summer and push for a vote on the bill.

JJDPA Reauthorization Would Require Reductions in Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) have introduced S.1169, which would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) for the first time since 2002. A House version, H.R. 2728, is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia). The JJDPA sets federal standards for the treatment of detained and committed youth. States are required to make progress addressing the racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems as one of the four core requirements of the law. Under the Grassley-Whitehouse measure, states must identify and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems; current law only requires that states “address” those disparities.

Racial and ethnic disparities pervade the juvenile justice system. African American youth are nearly two-and-a-half times as likely as white youth to be arrested; these disparities grow at nearly every step in the juvenile justice system. While a modest amount of this difference can be attributed to higher rates of violent offenses among African American youth, most arrests of all youth are for non-violent or low-level offenses. Nationwide, African American youth are more than four times as likely as white youth to be committed to secure placement.

Minneapolis Police Disproportionately Enforce Low-Level Offenses Among People of Color

In Picking Up the Pieces – Policing in America, a Minneapolis Case Studythe ACLU reports startling disparities in the way Minneapolis police enforce low-level offenses, particularly in the black neighborhoods of North Minneapolis, South Minneapolis, and the city center. Out of more than 96,000 low-level arrests analyzed, the ACLU found blacks and Native Americans were 8.7 times and 8.6 times, respectively, more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than whites. Further, the ACLU reports that black/white racial disparities in active driving violations were worst during daylight hours, when officers were more likely to identify the driver’s race before pulling them over, and were lower when it was dark and the visibility of the driver’s race was limited.

“This disparity contributes to longstanding mistrust between communities of color and the Minneapolis Police Department,” the report concludes. The ACLU lists several recommendations for reform, including ensuring officers are not rewarded for the number of stops and arrests they make and keeping public data on all civilian interactions with the police.

To address some of these racial disparities, the Minneapolis City Council recently voted to repeal spitting and lurking ordinances. Between 2009 and 2014, blacks accounted for 59% of the 392 arrests for lurking. “These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary and unfairly affect people of color in our community,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges. “It’s about time we got them off the books.”

Black Drivers in Missouri 75% More Likely to be Stopped Than Whites

Statewide, black drivers were 75% more likely to be stopped than white drivers in Missouri, according to the 2014 annual report of the Missouri Attorney General’s office. Black Missourians were also more likely than whites to be searched and arrested in traffic stops, despite having a lower “contraband hit rate.” Hispanics were far less likely to be pulled over than blacks or whites, but were searched at rates comparable to blacks. The report reveals that some of the patterns highlighted by the Department of Justice report in Ferguson are prevalent throughout the state.

In St. Louis County, many small municipalities use traffic ticketing and ordinance violation fines to generate revenues. The Missouri legislature passed a bill this session capping the amount of revenue that municipalities can make from traffic violation fines at 20% of their general operating revenue, except in St. Louis County, where it would be capped at 12.5%. Currently awaiting the governor’s signature, the bill also requires accreditation for municipal law enforcement agencies, limits fines, and eliminates confinement and failure to appear charges for minor traffic offenses. Although hailed as an important first step, the bill only addresses traffic fines and not other minor ordinance violations. Some critics also worry that it will primarily target black-led municipalities, potentially threatening black political power in St. Louis County.

Nearly Half of Black Women Have a Family Member in Prison

A recent study in the Du Bois Review, “Racial Inequalities in Connectedness to Imprisoned Individuals in the United States,” finds that 44% of black women have at least one family member in prison in contrast to only 12% of white women. Similar disparities were evident in other categories of connection: 35% of black women have an acquaintance in prison (vs. 15% for white women), 22% have a neighbor in prison (vs. 4%) and 17% have someone they trust in prison (vs. 5%). The authors, Hedwig Lee, Tyler McCormick, Margaret Hicken, and Christopher Wildeman, calculate that black women have a larger share of family members and neighbors in prison than both whites and black men relative to the estimated size of their social networks.

These findings “show just how pervasive contact with prisoners is for Black Americans—especially Black women—and, in so doing, suggest that mass imprisonment may have fundamentally reshaped American inequality not only for the men for whom imprisonment has become so common” but also for their family members, neighbors, and friends. The findings are based on General Social Survey questions from 2006, which asked respondents how many people they know are currently in state or federal prison.

Black Students Disproportionately Arrested in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish

The Times-Picayune reports the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a complaint against Jefferson Parish, Louisiana alleging the parish discriminated against black students by arresting and making other in-school referrals to law enforcement at a substantially higher rate than for white students. Filed with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the complaint supplements a previous filing with the Department of Education in 2012 and contends that the disparity in arrests and referrals has gotten worse.

Data from the 2013-2014 school year demonstrated that 80% of all school-based arrests and law enforcement referrals were of black students, even though they made up only about 42% of Jefferson’s enrollment. This is up from three years ago when 76% of all arrested students were black, compared to 46% of enrollment. One of the four plaintiffs, a 15-year-old boy, was detained in a juvenile detention center for six days following his arrest for throwing Skittles candy at another child. Jefferson Parish has a significantly higher rate of school-based arrests and referrals than other school districts of a similar size in Louisiana, and attorneys contend that most of these incidents could be handled without involving the criminal justice system.

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