A recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, Disparity By Design, reviews the use of “drug free zones”. Almost every state has adopted sentencing enhancements for individuals convicted of selling drugs within a set distance from schools or other drug-sensitive locations. In many jurisdictions, these zones reach a thousand feet (more or less) from the targeted drug-free site. In my home state, Alabama, any drug sale within three miles of any school (including universities) results in a mandatory five year prison term. As the Justice Policy Institute points out, this means that pretty much the entire core of the city of Birmingham is a drug free zone.
Whatever one may think of anti-drug policy, these drug free zones are very problematic. The Justice Policy Institute study points out one key reason: these rules have a substantially disparate racial impact. This disparity occurs because drug free zones have their greatest impact in high density areas, and because minorities – particularly African-Americans – are disproportionately concentrated in such areas. Though I haven’t studied the matter, I suspect that much of the impetus for these zones came from empowered suburban parents desperate to keep the drug menace out of their idyllic suburban school systems. As Joel Best showed in Threatened Children the push for many child protection laws – ranging from Megan’s Laws to these drug provisions – is typically provided by a relatively small coterie of activists who maintain their power and profile by promoting new child-protection legislation. My guess is that these individuals and groups did not set out to produce a law with a disparate racial impact. But just as in the case of Megan’s Laws – which I have shown have disparate race effects – nobody bothered to notice that these laws would almost inevitably lead to race disparities. Given the demographics of drug crimes, this impact simply cannot have been a surprise. (As for those states that make public housing a drug-free zone, matters are more complex. On one hand, the likelihood of disparate race effects is self-evident. On the other, some scholars – like Dan Kahan and Tracey Meares – might argue that the fact that these provisions are endorsed by representatives of minority communities effectively immunizes them from the disparate impact critique.)
There is a second problem with these laws, however. They undermine their very purpose. If the goal of these provisions was to deter drug sales within close proximity of schools, they should have created stronger sentences for crimes committed at the real site of risk. By expanding these zones far beyond schools, drug sellers cease to view schools as protected areas. Instead, as a practical matter, these zones simply increase the general punishment for drug sales. Some people may think this is a fine idea, but these people need to recognize that in doing so, they have diluted any special protection for schools. Not surprisingly, the study showed that these zones did not have a deterrent effect.
Kudos again to the Birmingham News for challenging Alabama’s expansive zones as bad criminal justice policy.
Hat tip: Doug Berman