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Chris July 11, 2015

Gov. Malloy signed two bills related to criminal justice following the special June legislative session in the past week. The “Act Concerning the Excessive Use of Force” provides police departments with new guidelines in the officer hiring process and training on the use of force along with funding for body cameras. Public Act 15-2 amends drug possession laws and the pardon and parole process for nonviolent offenders.

The most significant sweep is the reduction in status and penalty of simple drug possession. Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 21a-279 currently makes possession of drugs other than marijuana a felony with narcotics carrying a penalty of seven years for a first offense and 15 and 25 for second and subsequent offenses respectively. Hallucinogenic substances other than marijuana and 4 oz. or more of marijuana are D and C felonies for first and subsequent offenses. Possession of 1/2 oz up to 4 oz. of marijuana is a D felony. If any of these possessions occur in a school zone, there is a mandatory sentence of two years imprisonment.

The new law changes all of that. Effective Oct. 1, possession of controlled substances is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year of jail. The school zone enhancement has also been redefined–instead of a mandatory two years, there can now be a suspended sentence with probation and community service. The law also promotes drug treatment and diversionary programs. Despite the reduction in classification, conviction of these offenses makes one ineligible to possess firearms (as if it were still a felony). 

It must be noted that this law only applies to possession. Sales and possession with intent to sell laws are the same and still very, very harsh, with mandatory time and high prison exposure. The school zone enhancement still applies in these contexts as well.

The new law is a good and overdue change. Too many people are imprisoned or have felony records for simply being drug addicts, not dealers. Drug addiction is a health issue. Imprisoning people and putting them in situations wherein they are unemployable or unable to obtain other services because of criminal history perpetuates the problem. Nowadays, many people become addicted to heroin because they became addicted to prescription painkillers, which are often oral opiates. I’ve had many clients whose drug use started because they were prescribed oral opiates, became addicted, the prescription ran out and they turned to buying the pills illegally (which are expensive) and finally to heroin (a cheaper alternative). Few people just decide to start injecting heroin off the bat.

Lastly, the new law modifies the parole and pardon processes for non-violent (no-victim cases) prisoners and convicted persons. Both processes are still highly discretionary–nether parole nor pardon is automatic and can be denied. Still, it provides opportunities for people who need them. Whether felonies entered before the new law could be reclassified as misdemeanors remains to be determined but it could and should happen.