Doubts grow about effect of drug-free school zones

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A report contends such zones have done little to safeguard young people.

In reaction to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, laws creating drug-free zones around schools spread nationwide. Now, hard questions are being raised -- by legislators, activists, even law enforcement officials -- about the fairness and effectiveness of those laws.

In New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington state, bills have been proposed to sharply reduce the size of the zones. A former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts reviewed hundreds of drug-free-zone cases, and found that less than 1 percent involved drug sales to youths.

Citing such developments, the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute is issuing a report today that contends such laws have done little to safeguard young people and are enforced disproportionately on blacks and Hispanics.

"For two decades, policy-makers have mistakenly assumed that these statutes shield children from drug activity," said report co-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."

Most states have drug-free-zone laws; they often entail mandatory prison terms that preclude such options as probation or treatment.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said there have been no local cases prosecuted where a drug dealer was inside a drug-free zone selling to students going to or from school.

"That to me is what the law was designed to address," Swingle said, adding that of those arrested inside the zones often did not know they were close to a school.

Those convicted of drug-related crimes within the zones have normally not received the maximum punishment allowed by the enhanced statutes, Swingle said. Life imprisonment for selling a small amount of drugs within the zones is too much when the lower sentence would be adequate.

Lolita Buckner Inniss, a Cleveland State University law professor, is a vocal critic of the laws. Her research found that drug dealers in inner cities and compact rural towns were disproportionately likely to incur the extra penalties, in contrast to dealers in suburbs.

"I've been dissatisfied by how the public mutely accepts these laws," she said.

Southeast Missourian writer Kyle W. Morrison contributed to this report.

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