home

Report: 'Drug Free Zones' Contribute to Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice

by TChris

The Justice Policy Institute released a report (pdf) that explores the impact of "drug free zones" on racial disparity in the criminal justice system. This recap is from the Drug Policy Alliance, which commissioned the report:

Although intended to provide a safe haven for youth, drug-free zone laws do not deter drug activity within prohibited zones. While not achieving the intended goals, these laws contribute to unacceptably high levels of racial disparity in the use of incarceration and subject people of color to stiffer punishment than whites engaged in similar conduct. Several states are considering proposals to either eliminate or narrow the scope of the drug-free zone laws, in order to enhance public safety and minimize unintended consequences.

The laws enhance penalties for drug offenses that occur in certain restricted areas - generally 1,000-foot zones around locations such as schools, public housing complexes, parks and playgrounds. Many drug-free zone laws include mandatory minimum sentencing terms and enhancements so that judges lose the discretion to determine appropriate penalties on a case-by-case basis.

The laws are often applied to transactions that take place with no children present, occurring in private residences that happen to be less than 1,000 feet - about the length of three football fields - from a school's property line. ...

The zones completely cover many densely populated urban neighborhoods, where people of color are more likely to live. For example, in New Jersey, drug-free zone laws cover three quarters of Newark, in contrast to six percent of rural Mansfield Township. What is more, the disparity seems to be exacerbated by drug enforcement patterns. In Massachusetts, blacks and Hispanics make up 20 percent of the population, but 80 percent of drug-free zone cases. In New Jersey and Connecticut, blacks in suburban and rural areas are far more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and convicted of drug-free zone offenses.

Drug free zones are based on "tough on crime" rhetoric, not on rational policy. The zones may have helped some politicians seeking knee-jerk, anti-crime votes, but they haven't helped society. It's time that we Just Say No to drug free zones.

< Wrongly Accused Student Commits Suicide | Federal Sentencing: Just Say No to Sensenbrenner >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft


  • Like much of the harsh drug war laws, "school zone" penalty enhancers sound like good deterrent laws in theory, but have horrible unintended consequnces in practice. (They may be intended consequences as well, as they are racist and discriminatory). The problem is that in urban areas, drawing a 1000 foot radius around every location denominated as a "school" (which can often include day care in church basements, Boys and Girl's Clubs, etc.) results in the ENTIRE city being a "school zone" with a few random swiss-cheese holes which are just "normal illegal prohibition zones". This bad effect was even noted by one of the few critical academic commentors allowed to testify before that hot-bed of pro-war-on-drugs zealotry, the House Judiciarty Committee here. The obvious problem with the school zone laws is thus that they covertly make all urban inner city areas into enhanced penalty areas while in the suburbs and rural areas, you may have a shot at being 1000' away from a "school". The laws are also a subterfuge in that it's supposed that the ban is on selling to schoolkids in schoolyards, but few convictions have anything to do with schools, per se, rather than a surveyor testifying that "defendant's apartment was 536.98 feet from P.S. 2940".

    Re: Report: 'Drug Free Zones' Contribute to Racia (none / 0) (#1)
    by Beck on Sun Mar 26, 2006 at 08:34:31 PM EST
    As someone whose backyard adjoins school property, I think it's ridiculous that activity that takes place in the privacy of my house will be punished more harshly than the same activity taking place in your house. These laws are as senseless and ignorant of the facts as the laws that prevent sex offenders from living withn x feet of a school.

    While I agree that Drug Free Zones are simply a political tool on the ever failing "war on drugs," I think its going to be a hard sell. A statment like "Just Say No to drug free zones" is not going to sit well with people who think that the use of drugs rather than the criminalization of their use and possession is the problem. The spirit of the article is honorable and its point well made but I can't quite figure out how if we "eliminate or narrow the scope of the drug-free zone laws..." it will "enhance public safety." Minimize unintended consequences; yes, but the enahncement of public safety? Its going to be a hard sell.

    NJ is about to reduce their Drug Free School Zones from 1000 feet to 200 feet.

    Posted by njwatcher March 27, 2006 03:49 AM
    NJ is about to reduce their Drug Free School Zones from 1000 feet to 200 feet.
    Commerce is King. Born in New Brunswick, raised in Clinton, Twp, they're just tryin' to make the place more business-friendly.

    So possibly one of you moon bat geniuses could explain how mandatory minimum sentencing could be anything but completely color blind and fair. The judge has no options, you commit this crime, you get this punishment, regardless of what color you are. The only disparity here is that people of color commit the damn crime more often than whites and therefore are caught and convicted more often than whites. Call me a racist all you like, and I'm sure you will, but the logic is undeniable and irrefutable.

    The only disparity here is that people of color commit the damn crime more often than whites and therefore are caught and convicted more often than whites. No, it's more likely that blacks will be charged than whites. Blacks will also get charged equally for a lesser dollar amount of crack than a White will for an equal weight of coke worth considerably more. aka hamburger v fillet mignon. Nice try, invariably weak, but a nice try.
    Call me a racist all you like, and I'm sure you will, but the logic is undeniable and irrefutable.
    That you're a you're a racist and a bigot, yes, yes, it is. I'm glad we could come to that meeting of the minds.

    Re: Report: 'Drug Free Zones' Contribute to Racia (none / 0) (#7)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 27, 2006 at 09:39:04 AM EST
    Doesn't prohibition make the whole USofA a "drug free zone"? What is the state trying to do exactly? I'm confused...is the state saying drugs are illegal, but inside certain areas it's extra illegal? Or inside these zones they "really mean it", while they generally turn a blind eye outside the zones? The whole drug war bag is so comical.

    Oh, I see charlie, Its not actually the courts that are behind this conspiracy, it's actually the cops who are racist scumbags. Oh, now wait, I guess the prosecutors are racist pigs as well. And anyone else who has a hand in deciding who should be tried in a court of law. Wow, this scandal is huge. Cops and prosecutors are all scumbag racists. They're planting drugs on and inflicting the symptoms of addiction on innocent black people every where, and then arresting them. Did any alert the media about this. I'm glad you have straightened me out on this one. Cops, prosecutors, judges (when their hands are tied behind mandatory sentences) = racist scum. Defense attorneys, and black people who resemble drug dealers or addicts = innocent or heroic people.

    Re: Report: 'Drug Free Zones' Contribute to Racia (none / 0) (#9)
    by Johnny on Mon Mar 27, 2006 at 02:55:21 PM EST
    Variable, have you ever looked at any statistical breakdowns on drug crimes? I am just curious if your stance is based on any actual research or just wishful thinking.

    Johnny, it's invariably based on ignorance. Then again, it'd kinda have to be.

    but have horrible unintended consequnces in practice. (They may be intended consequences as well, as they are racist and discriminatory).
    Perhaps this is all true, jackl, but you don't substantiate any of it in your post. I don't hear one horrible consequence, and don't see one shred of proof that they are racist. As far as discriminatory, you may be able to make the claim that they are discriminatory against city dwellers in relation to suburbanites, but that is all that one can surmise from your post. Perhaps you'd like another crack at it?

    You don't see any evidence that urban areas are more densely populated than suburban and rural areas, variable? Just what sort of documentation would you need to demonstrate to you that Essex County, NJ is a wee bit more densely populated than Essex County, VT for example? Just out of curiosity, are you currently on life support?

    You don't see any evidence that urban areas are more densely populated than suburban and rural areas, variable?
    Sure I do Charlie. Perhaps you could explain how exactly does that lead you to believe its a racist policy. It only leads me to believe that the policy is intelligently targeted at the problem areas.