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Conn. advocates call for racial assessment mandate

By Shannon Young
Associated Press / March 26, 2012
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HARTFORD, Conn.—Advocates for social justice are calling on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to pass an emergency executive order preventing lawmakers from passing bills without first assessing their potential racial and ethnic impacts.

Connecticut Parents Union and other advocates said the proposal comes in response to the February shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in what he said was an act of self-defense. The shooting has sparked national debate over self-defense legislation.

Gwen Samuel, a parent and the founder of Connecticut Parents Union, said that while she has yet to meet with the governor and discuss the issue with him, she hopes he will be able to do something to safeguard against a similar situation in Connecticut.

Under Florida law, a person who kills another in self-defense is justified if the action is done to prevent his or her own death or bodily harm or a forcible felony. Additionally, a person doesn't have a duty to retreat if he or she feels threatened and can get away safely.

Because of the law, some people who claim justifiable reasons for self-defense in Florida are granted immunity from criminal prosecution or civil action.

In Connecticut, self-defense legislation allows for the use of deadly force only in situations in which a person reasonably believes he or she is in danger of death or serious injury. Connecticut law also requires people to flee, if possible, and to defend their actions before a jury. If a person is in his or her home or at work or is a police officer, the duty to flee does not apply.

In response to concerns from advocacy groups, the state Office of Policy and Management's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, Mike Lawlor, said an emergency executive order would not be necessary because state lawmakers can already request analysis of potential racial impacts for proposed criminal justice legislation.

Samuel said, however, she would like to see the current rule become a mandate so that nothing is overlooked.

In 2009, the General Assembly made Connecticut the second state to create a rule allowing state legislative committees the ability to require the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research to prepare a racial and ethnic impact statement for any bill that would affect the size of the prison population.

Lawlor, who served as co-chair to the Judiciary Committee when the rule was enacted, said he pushed for the measure in response to legislation that had unintended effects on ethnic populations. He said he believes the mechanism has been used once since enacted.

Lawlor said that while he believes the assessment mechanism is underutilized in the legislature, studying racial impacts is not relevant for every bill. He said that the Office of Policy and Management performs similar assessments for legislation presented and supported by the governor, a Democrat.

Samuel said she and others are afraid that without mandating assessments some laws could lead to unintended vigilante justice and racial profiling, as has been alleged in the Florida shooting because Martin was black and Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic. Samuel, who's black, also expressed concerns that self-defense laws, similar to those in Florida, could spring up in Connecticut without assessment.

"We've got too much at stake," said Samuel, the mother of three sons.

She said she wants lawmakers to consider all populations when reviewing proposed legislation.

Last year, state Republican lawmakers pushed to further Connecticut's self-defense legislation by proposing a bill that would presume, under the law, that people in their homes have a right to use deadly force to protect against intruders.

Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, who sponsored last year's bill, said that while he supports self-defense against home invaders, he doesn't believe what happened in Florida should happen anywhere.

"I can't believe a Connecticut law would ever (be passed to) provide defense for that circumstance, ever, nor should it," he said. "But what transpired in Florida is a lot different situation than someone defending themselves from a home invader."

Although a public hearing was conducted on the proposal, the measure failed to make it past the committee process.

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