When the War on Drugs took over our country, laws were enacted left and right to “stick it to” the drug dealers. Fear and propaganda were used to gain support for some of the harshest criminal laws of all time—laws that would essentially send people away for decades or more for nonviolent, and “victimless” offenses. All in the name of protecting the “rest of us” from scary drug dealers, users, and drugs in general.
School zone laws are one aspect of the War on Drugs that serves to do little more than drive the prison industrial complex and increase disparities among those within the justice system. In other words, school zone drug laws are racist (and ineffective).
School zone drug laws increase penalties for drug offenses committed within range of a school. While they vary widely across the nation, the “school zone” for which these harsher penalties apply is usually within 1,000 feet of any school or daycare—though some states and cities include parks in their protected zones. Being caught in possession of drugs within the school zone could double your potential sentence or add other penalties like increased fines and community service. In some areas, it could mean the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, a slap on the wrist and a prison sentence, or a suspended sentence (probation) and a mandatory minimum stint in the state penal system.
There many criticisms of these school zone laws, namely about their ineffectiveness. They were “sold” as a means to keep our children safe, but they’re rarely applied to people trying to sell drugs to kids, merely people who live in school zones. Which brings up the biggest criticism of all—in urban areas, school zones blanket large swaths of minority communities, making nearly every drug crime a school zone drug offense and therefore penalized far more severely than had it been committed elsewhere.
In densely populated areas, where backyards are small or non-existent, and high-rises and apartment complexes are common, nearly everywhere is considered a school zone.
“In an inner city, almost everywhere is within 1,000 feet of a bus stop, a school, a public housing development, a park, etc., which turns inner cities into hyper-criminalized spaces,” says Emory law professor Kay Levine, recently awarded a grant to study the racist effects of these laws. “So if you put those two insights together—who’s living in our inner cities, who’s selling in our inner cities—it tends to be poor and minority, particularly male, populations.”
A 2006 study (pdf) from the Justice Policy Institute, commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, sought to determine just what sort of effect these school zone laws were having. They made three key findings:
- School zones were turning entire urban communities into prohibited areas, virtually “erasing the very distinction between school and non-school areas that the law was intended to create.”
- The laws were creating racial disparities by blanketing these minority communities.
- The laws had “failed entirely to accomplish their primary objective” of driving drug activity away from schools and areas frequented by children.
In addition to these, prosecutors are using the school zone laws to their advantage. They know most of the people charged in these zones weren’t threatening the safety of school children. But, they also know that threatening a defendant with a harsher school zone sentence could convince them to plead guilty to a lighter sentence. In other words, these laws have become another way for prosecutors to “game” justice out of the justice system.
We also know that there is a huge difference in who gets arrested for marijuana possession. According to the New York Times, “Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates.”
Racial disparities within the criminal justice system and particularly within the War on Drugs are nothing new. But isolating where the disparities originate can be difficult. School zone laws are one large source of disparities, seeking to dole out tougher sentences to those who live in these protected zones—people who are more likely to be minorities. And though the Drug Policy Alliance pointed this out seven years ago, nothing has changed. For police and the courts, it’s business as usual as they funnel drug offenders through the system, increasing their penalties even when they weren’t selling to schoolchildren as the law was intended to prevent.
For lawmakers, admitting school zone laws are racist would require them to suggest changes, and that is a political risk none of them are lining up to take.