Study Concludes Drug-free Zones Not Protecting Children (NJ)

The Press of Atlantic City
By: Lynda Cohen
Published: March 24, 2006

Drug-free zones not only don't protect children, but instead have put a disproportionate number of minorities in jail, according to experts who have been studying the policy.

A national study — spawned by a New Jersey commission's findings — was released Thursday. In it, the Justice Policy Institute found that the zones are too large and therefore do not deter drug sales within school zones and other protected areas. "These laws are not protecting children," report co-author Judith Greene said in a conference call Thursday. "They do, however, have a very marked and disturbingly disproportionate effect in African-American and Latino communities."

In New Jersey, 96 percent of those jailed under the laws are black or Latino, according to the data.

New Jersey law marks a drug-free school zone 1,000 feet around a school and has a 500-foot boundary from public housing and parks. But in more densely populated urban areas with lots of schools and public housing, the zones overlap, creating a blanket zone.

"If every place is a stay-away zone, no place is a stay-away zone," said Roseanne Scotti, director of New Jersey's Drug Policy Alliance.

While the state study focused on areas such as Camden and Newark, Atlantic City has a similar makeup where an overlap exists. In many cases, suspects charged within a public housing area also are charged with a school-zone violation.

Atlantic City acting police Chief John Mooney said he wants to read over the study before commenting on it.

Bills introduced in the state Senate and Assembly suggest a 200-foot limit for schools, public housing and parks, which the group says would encourage drug dealers to stay away from schools. "If the law does not have that deterrent effect, then the purpose of the law is greatly diminished," said Deputy Attorney General Ben Barlyn, executive director of the N.J. Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing.

The proposed legislation also would increase the drug-free zone penalties from third-degree crimes to second-degree, which would carry five to 10 years' jail time. The judge then could impose a mandatory minimum of half the sentence, Barlyn explained.

"I think anyone would be hard-pressed to call that softening," he said.

The latest study is part of a national move to do something about the problems these zones create and actually effect the goals the Legislature intended," Scotti said.

To e-mail Lynda Cohen at The Press: LCohen [at] pressofac [dot] com