New National Report Shows That Drug-free Zone Laws Fail to Protect Youth From Drug Sales, Worsen Racial Disparity in Prisons

Press Release March 22, 2006
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 646-335-5984

Washington, D.C. – Laws that heighten penalties for drug activity near schools, public housing and other designated locations fail to protect youth, according to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance. 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 school zones laws don’t work the way we want them to – we are not actually giving criminals an incentive to stay away from schools,” said William Brownsberger, a drug policy expert and former Assistant Attorney General for Narcotics for Massachusetts. “If we reduced the size of the zones, we would actually protect kids better.”

The report, “Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity – and fail to protect youth,” examines drug-free zone laws in a variety of states through a national policy lens. Building on research from New Jersey and Massachusetts, the report also reviews data and recent developments in Connecticut, Washington, Utah, Texas, and considers the history of the laws as well as the growing chorus of criticism from lawmakers, law enforcement, prosecutors and advocates. The JPI report, authored by Judith Greene, Kevin Pranis and Jason Ziedenberg, was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance.

“For two decades, policymakers have mistakenly assumed that these statutes shield children from drug activity,” said report author Judith Greene. “We found no evidence that drug-free zone laws protect children, but ample evidence that the laws hurt communities of color and contribute to mounting correctional costs.”

Drug-free zone laws provide heightened penalties for drug offenses that occur within restricted areas – generally 1,000-foot zones, roughly the length of three football fields – surrounding schools, public housing projects, parks, playgrounds, and other locations. Many drug-free zone statutes require mandatory minimum prison terms, denying judges the discretion to determine the appropriate penalty on a case-by-case basis.

The laws blanket densely-populated areas with overlapping zones and are frequently applied to transactions that take place in private residences, far from schools, and with no children present. In one instance, a man received an enhanced sentence for selling marijuana to a police officer in his second-floor apartment, simply because his building happened to be 950 feet away from the property line of the nearest school.

Key findings on the failures of drug-free zone laws include:

Drug-free zone laws do not serve their intended purpose to protect youth from drug activity. A Massachusetts study of drug enforcement in three cities found that less than one percent of the drug-free zone cases actually involved sales to youth. Analysis of hundreds of Connecticut drug-free zone cases identified just three such cases – all involving students arrested on school grounds. In Connecticut and Massachusetts researchers found that most of the sales occurred outside traditional school hours. Contrary to fears of drug dealers on playgrounds, Utah’s Sentencing Commission found that most sales actually occur within a residence that simply happens to be located with in a zone. “The purpose of drug-free school zones was to protect children and schools by insulating them from drug activity,” said New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Ron Susswein. “Our intention was to create a safe harbor for children by pushing the pushers away. Unfortunately, the current 1,000-foot zones have failed to achieve that objective.”

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by drug-free school zone laws. Densely populated urban neighborhoods, where people of color are more likely to live, are blanketed by prohibited zones, while rural and suburban neighborhoods are less affected. In New Jersey, three-quarters of Newark, and over half of Jersey City and Camden, falls within a zone compared to just six percent of rural Mansfield Township. The result of this “urban effect” is what New Jersey’s sentencing commission terms “a devastatingly disproportionate impact on New Jersey’s minority community.” In Connecticut – which has been ranked number one in terms of racial disparity in incarceration – cities where the majority of residents are nonwhite have ten times more zones per square mile than localities where less than 10 percent of residents are black or Hispanic.

Unequal enforcement contributes to sharp racial disparities in incarceration rates. The racial disparity that results from the “urban effect” of drug-free zone laws appears to be exacerbated by disparate drug enforcement patterns. In Dorchester, Massachusetts researchers found that nonwhites were more likely to be charged with an offense that can carry a drug-free zone enhancement than whites who engaged in similar conduct. Blacks and Hispanics account for just 20 percent of Massachusetts residents but 80 percent of drug-free zone cases. In New Jersey, blacks in suburban and rural areas are far more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and convicted of drug-free zone offenses. New Jersey devotes a larger share of beds to drug prisoners than any other state corrections system. Blacks and Hispanics make up just a quarter of the state’s resident population, while they comprise 96 percent of prisoners serving time for drug-free zone offenses. National studies have found that whites, blacks and Hispanics use illegal drugs at similar rates, and also that most users obtain drugs from people with their own racial or ethnic background.

Drug-free zone laws do not deter drug sales. In New Jersey, sentencing commissioners could find no deterrent effect of the drug-free zone law. Fewer than one in 10 arrests takes place just outside the zones. Moreover, the number of drug-free zone arrests has risen since the law was enacted, rather than falling – as would be expected if drug sellers had moved their activity to avoid prohibited zones. The commission concluded that the size of the zones erodes their deterrent effect. According to Judge Barnett E. Hoffman, chair of the commission, “Giant unbroken drug-free zones…actually dilute the special protection the laws are supposed to offer.”

Drug-free zone laws erode the constitutional right to trial by forcing defendants to plead guilty or risk long prison terms. At least half of the 46 individuals arrested in an infamous drug sweep in Tulia, Texas faced enhanced prison terms under the state’s drug-free zone statute. In Washington state, prosecutors acknowledge that the principal function of drug-free zone enhancements is not to deter drug activity near schools but to “clear the trial calendar” and the data support that contention.

Several states are reconsidering drug-free zone laws. Last year, Illinois legislators reformed their drug-free zone laws to remove a provision that required that 15- and 16-year old drug sellers be automatically tried as adults. Officials in four states have proposed reforms to drug-free zone laws that range from reducing the size of the zones to replacing them with a more narrowly tailored law to protect children.

New Jersey’s sentencing commissioners and other proponents of reducing the size of prohibited zones believe that the reform will accomplish two objectives: more effectively deter drug activity that occurs within sight of schools and other protected locations; and lessen the impact of mandatory sentencing on urban communities, thereby reducing racial disparities.

“The findings in this report confirm what we’ve known for years – that the current drug-free school zones don’t deter illicit drug sales or use in our communities,” said Connecticut State Rep. Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey (D-Hartford), Deputy Speaker of the House. “Where the laws have failed to increase public safety, they’ve been wildly successful in promoting terrible racial disparities. This is why I’ve introduced legislation to reform these laws, because effective drug policies will bring us safer communities, safer schools, and safer kids.”

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

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