School Zone Drug Laws are Racist

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.

School Zone Drug LawsThere 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. The laws were creating racial disparities by blanketing these minority communities.
  3. 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.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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  • Brett

    More B.S. If more blacks sell drugs, then more blacks will get arrested. It’s a terrible inappropriate thought process, just like 1) drug testing welfare recipients is racist, 2) requiring criminal background checks is racist, 3) stiff drug penalties are racist. All B.S. That’s like saying stiff child molestation sentences are racist because most molesters are white. There is obviously a problem with in the black culture that needs to be addressed, and only the government can do it. Stop giving financial incentive for blacks to mass-produce children – children that will only grow up and also become criminals, and drain the welfare budget.

  • Elizabeth

    Brett- Your response is an opinion shared by many who are satisfied reaching their conclusions through evidence presented by the evening news and talking heads. My opinion, and the truth of the matter, is that much of the U.S. criminal justice system is, by design, racist. We have created a system that disproportionately affects minorities from arrest to post-sentencing and everything in between. This is achieved through criminal laws (like the disparate crack-laws and these school zone laws), police officer discretion, poor urban education, and unchecked prosecutorial power, among other things. And I could go on for ages about this, but I digress:
    Specifically in the case of these school zone laws, we trap those people who live within densely populated areas (urban areas which are more predominantly minority) and subject them to tougher sentences than those who live in the suburbs, for example. So, someone caught and charged with a nickle bag of weed in the inner city will not face the same penalty as someone caught and charged with a nickle bag of weed in the ‘burbs, because of their proximity to a school. The inner city defendant will receive a harsher sentence because, 9 times out of 10, they are within a school zone.
    Now, as to your comments regarding welfare being a financial incentive for “mass production” of children: Your conclusion that the whole truth begins and ends with “how many” blacks are on welfare tells me you aren’t ready for the kind of intelligent discourse such a discussion would require. I refuse to “go there” with you as I would hate to make you look like a buffoon and a racist fool.

    • Mark

      Elizabeth, my congrats to you for going after these issues and trying to make them clear and expose them in the face of so many people in this country who are just like Brett, lacking any critical thinking skills.

  • David Matson

    Opinions may differ as to whether the intent of school zone laws is racist, but the usage outcomes very clearly are. Maybe the intent was to keep drugs away from kids, but school zone drug law penalties are nearly always applied in cases that have nothing to do with kids. It is people just walking by with a bag of pot, or people who just happen to live in a dense area near a school. And these people are primarily minorities.
    Do you think there is any chance cops every hassle or “stop and frisk” people knowing that they are in a school zone, and whatever they find might be subject to more serious penalties? Shocking, I know.
    But your comments indicate that you are not taking a serious look at these issues, and your own bigotry and ignorance rules out any honest and serious discussion.

  • Lil t

    My “opinion “is the school zone law was only passed a tool for the court system to achieve more higher prosecution rates . As one will certainly plea to get out of years behind bars . Not to mention the cost of hiring an attorney . This law was only put into place to get more convictions and collect more money for the system .
    And yes the black community is hit the hardest . How many of them are there ? every where I have ever lived the black community calls itself the minority while it largely outnumbers all the rest 3-1 . Doesn’t sound much like a minority to me . Not to mention every time I turn on the news it’s full of young black men killing each other over drugs ! So you can’t call it racial ! It’s a social problem in the black community . They’re killing each off . Some might think that’s not a problem . Well it is, all the young people dying are the brightest and most promising ! If you want to be better you have to quit killing off anyone with brain a heart a conscience !
    I hope I haven’t offended anyone with my opinion . Cause that and a buck will get u a cup of coffee .

  • David Matson

    Good points, Lil T. Totally agree.

    Except sometimes, people actually do end up serving time for a school zone violation and they can’t plead their way out of it. If you’ve got a serious drug problem, and have some priors, or maybe other minor run-ins with the law, they won’t necessarily just let you walk out with probation.

    Any addiction needs to be treated as a public health problem, not a criminal problem.