Drug-Free School Zones Called Unfair, Ineffective
Few cases prosecuted under so-called “drug-free school zones” statutes involve sales to youth, according to a series of studies that add fuel to criticism of such laws.
The Associated Press reported March 23 that researcher and former Massachusetts assistant attorney general William Brownsberger reviewed 443 drug cases in three cities and found that 80 percent of the cases occurred in drug-free school zones, and only one percent of cases involved minors. Similarly, a New Jersey sentencing review commission found that just 2 percent of drug-free schools cases involved students.
“When the overlap of zones in densely populated areas covers the entire city, the idea of special protection loses its meaning — people don't know they're in a school zone,” said Ben Barlyn, a deputy attorney general and executive director of the New Jersey panel. “It would be as if we made the entire New Jersey Turnpike a reduced speed zone.”
“The laws have an undeniable appeal — nobody wants drugs near schools,” said Brownsberger. “But the evidence suggests they're not effective in moving drug dealing away from schools. If every place is a stay-away zone, no place is a stay-away zone.”
Lawmakers in New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington have called for the size of the zones to be reduced. The new report from the Justice Policy Institute says that the laws are ineffective in protecting youth and factor into disproportionately high penalties against blacks and Hispanics; the New Jersey sentencing panel found that 96 percent of offenders charged under drug-free school zone laws were members of these minority groups.
The Justice Policy Institute's report also found that drug arrests in school zones have increased, not decreased, over the years.
Editor's note: The Will Brownsberger study noted in this article was funded via a grant to Join Together from the Shaw Foundation of Boston.