Monday, March 27, 2006

Drug-free school area ineffective, report says

Three-mile zone called expensive, racially biased
Monday, March 27, 2006
News staff writer

A new national report says that drug-free school zone laws fail to shield school children from drugs, and instead contribute to racial disparities in prison and to skyrocketing prison costs.

Alabama's "drug-free" zones, which extend three miles from every school, college and public housing project, are the largest in the country, researchers found. Most of Birmingham lies in the zone, which mandates an additional five years in prison for convicted drug sellers and sweeps up hundreds of people whose drug activity occurs in private homes.

"No other state approaches the scale chosen by lawmakers in Alabama. ... Each zone covers an area of more than 27 square miles," according to "Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity - and fail to protect youth," a report issued last week by the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit that advocates less incarceration.

Nearly all states have enhanced penalty laws, with the typical zone extending 1,000 feet from a school. Recent research in Massachusetts and New Jersey has shown that most zone-related cases don't involve sales to youth, prompting several states to tweak their laws or tighten the zones to 200 feet.

"There is no evidence, nor has any come up since the report's been released, showing any deterrent affect as a result of the laws," said author Kevin Pranis. "The evidence that we found all points in the other direction, no deterrent effect."

Authors looked at whether drug arrests and teen drug use declined within the area protected by large zones. It did not, Pranis said.

The report cites a study by the New Jersey Sentencing Commission that found "giant, unbroken" zones dilute the special protections they were intended to give. An assistant attorney general in New Jersey acknowledged they failed to create the intended "safe harbors" for kids.

"The larger the zone, the less protection afforded to places that are supposed to be protected," Pranis said. "Alabama's three-mile zones are probably the least effective drug-free zones the country."

University of Alabama research has found that teen drug use has increased since the law passed. In 1988, about 15 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls reported having used drugs, according to the most recent Alabama Adolescent Survey available. By 2001, 32 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls said they had used illegal drugs.

In 1987, then-Gov. Guy Hunt first pushed for the drug-free zones. Lawmakers passed a bill creating a one-mile zone, then expanded it to three miles in 1989 under a bill pushed by Sen. Roger Bedford.


No comments: