New National Report Finds Drug-Free Zone Laws Fail to Protect Youth and Worsen Racial Disparities in Incarceration

Press Release March 22, 2006
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 646-335-5984 or Roseanne Scotti at 609-610-8243

Trenton – A groundbreaking national report on controversial “drug-free zones” was released by Justice Police Institute today. The report, which focuses on drug-free zone laws nationally, follows a first-of-its-kind report which was released by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing last December.

The Justice Policy Institute report concludes, as did the New Jersey report, that the drug-free zone laws are ineffective in their intended purpose of protecting youth from drug activity and contribute to glaring racial disparities in incarceration. In New Jersey, 96 percent of all those incarcerated under the laws are African American or Latino. Similar disparities were found in other states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The findings were discussed during a teleconference today. Participants included: report co-author Judith Green; Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes, sponsor of legislation to reform the zones in New Jersey; Deputy Attorney General Ben Barlyn, Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing; Dr. Bruce Stout, Executive Director of the Violence Institute and member of the New Jersey sentencing commission; and Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey. Drug Policy Alliance commissioned the report.

Like the New Jersey report, Justice Policy Institute’s report found an “urban effect” to the drug-free zone laws in other states. This effect results from the zones being so large (in New Jersey, 1000 feet around any school or school bus and 500 feet around public housing, parks, libraries, and museums) that the zones blanket the majority of any densely populated urban area (76% of Newark, 54% of Jersey City, 52% % of Camden) but much less area in suburban and rural locations (6% of Mansfield Township). Therefore offenders in urban areas, who are more likely to be African American or Latino, are far more likely to fall within the zones than offenders in suburban or rural areas who are more likely to be white. The urban offenders are therefore much more likely to receive the extra mandatory minimum three year prison sentence required under the zone law.

“Justice Policy Institute’s report shows irrefutably that drug-free zone laws across the country fail miserably at their intended goal of protecting youth from drug activity and have created an intrinsically unfair system with different penalties for the same crime with the severity of the penalty being based on geography and ultimately on race,” said Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey. In New Jersey, 96 % of all those incarcerated for drug-free zone offenses are African American or Latino although African Americans and Latinos account for only 27% of the state’s population.

The Justice Policy Institute report also found the laws ineffective in their intended goal of deterring drug activity in the zones. Critics of the zones have long maintained that the zones are so broad that they have no nexus to the designated sites, such as schools, that they are aimed at protecting and therefore any potential deterrent effect is diluted. Judith Green, co-author of the report, explained that, “For two decades, policymakers have mistakenly assumed that these laws shield children from drug activity, but we found no evidence that drug-free school zone laws deter drug activity within the zones. We did find ample evidence that the laws hurt communities of color and contribute to mounting correctional costs.”

The report also focused on movements in New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington and Utah to reform and focus the laws. Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes, sponsor of Assembly Bill 2877 which would reduce New Jersey’s zones from 1000 to 200 feet while enhancing the penalty within the 200 foot zone from a 3rd degree to a 2nd degree offense (a companion bill S278 is sponsored by Senator Bernard F. Kenny, Jr., D-Hudson Co.) is a former FBI agent and member of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing. Connecticut and Washington State are also considering legislation to reduce the zones to 200 feet, and Utah is considering limiting the laws to those who actually sell or manufacture drugs in the presence of children.

Bruce Stout lauded the accumulation of hard evidence supporting reform of the drug-free zone laws. “The growing body of evidence-based and data-driven research is critically important to understanding how to reform these laws so they can become truly effective and achieve the public safety goals the legislature intended when they originally passed the laws,” said Stout.

Deputy Attorney General Ben Barlyn, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing discussed New Jersey’s leadership role in reforming the school zone laws. “There was a common sentiment shared by the members of the commission including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and cabinet members that a review of the school zone law needed to be a priority based on a belief that the law was neither fair nor effective. Based on the painstaking collection and review of data this belief was confirmed. It is gratifying that New Jersey’s report has spurred other states to examine the impact of their drug-free zone laws.”

“This new report supports the findings of the New Jersey sentencing commission and supports the growing movement for reform here in New Jersey,” summarized Roseanne Scotti. “The proposed legislation in New Jersey would not soften the law but rather focus it to ensure that our criminal justice resources are targeted to provide maximum public safety. At the same time this reform would create a fairer and more just policy and reduce the disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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