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Drug-Free School Zones Full of Cracks

Massachusetts study shows shield fails in urban areas

THURSDAY, July 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Political popularity aside, laws to promote drug-free school zones may be more wishful thinking than effective policy, a new study says.

An analysis of Massachusetts' School Zone Anti-Drug Act, which stiffened the penalty for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, found the 1989 law has failed to prevent such sales. Although the Massachusetts law and others like it are designed to drive dealers from school grounds, the study shows dealing is as common 250 feet from a school as it is much farther away.

Ironically, the study says when pushers are caught in a school zone, they're generally allowed to escape the full weight of the law.

"The school zone statute doesn't make the area around schools any safer for kids," says Will Brownsberger, who prepared the report for Join Together, a program of the Boston University School of Public Health.

The study analyzed nearly 450 drug-dealing arrests in three Bay State communities, Fall River, New Bedford and Springfield. Law enforcement officials in several other cities, including Boston, would not participate in the survey.

While less than 1 percent of the drug deals involved sales to minors, 80 percent occurred within school zones. That's apparently because many schools are scattered throughout heavily populated, poor areas where drug use is rife.

"Most drug dealing occurs near home, and most drug dealers live in school zones," which, at least in the areas examined in the study, happened to be in inner cities, Brownsberger says. "It's not a surprise, but it has nothing to do with your worst-case stereotype of your pusher standing there handing out the first dose free to fifth graders."

Indeed, 71 percent of the drug offenses included in the report occurred when school was out, either at night, on weekends or during summer.

The Massachusetts law established a mandatory two-year prison term for dealers caught peddling in a school zone. But the study found that most of these offenses are "broken down" into lesser charges that carry lighter sentences.

Experts say most states and local jurisdictions, encouraged by the federal government, have set up drug-free school zones.

This latest report isn't the first to point out problems with these ordinances. A recent study by Building Blocks for Youth, a consortium of advocacy groups, looked at drug arrests in Cook County, Ill. It found the state's drug-free school zone rule is having a profound effect on the racial makeup of juvenile offenders being tried as adults. Under Illinois law, 15- and 16-year-old dealers charged with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school are funneled into the adult court system.

The institute says the statute effectively is a tool for jailing blacks and Hispanics, who between 1999 and 2000 accounted for more than 99 percent of teens imprisoned on drug charges. Of the 259 teens transferred to adult court in Cook County for a drug crime last year, only one was white, the group says.

Sharda Sekaran, associate director of public policy and community outreach at the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, says the two reports taken together "really calls into question whether we should have such laws, or whether we should be concentrating on people who sell to minors. They're really only symbolic gestures that don't have anything to do with discouraging young people from doing drugs."

Sekaran says the experience of New York State, with its notoriously aggressive Rockefeller-Era drug laws, has been similar to Massachusetts.

"They haven't proven to be effective at all," Sekaran says. "They create penalties and incentives for police to do sweeps around schools, but that really doesn't directly affect the children."

But Brownsberger isn't ready to say school zone regulations can't work, especially where the lines between neighborhoods and schools are less blurred. He says they might help tighten the invisible fence.

"If we were to target 100 or 200 feet and enhance the penalty, you would affect many fewer defendants" but get the ones most threatening to children, he says.

What To Do

For more on drug-free school zones, try the National Crime Prevention Council.

For more about drug laws and alternatives to current drug policy in this country, visit the Lindesmith Center.

For more on the Illinois report, try the Justice Policy Institute.

To learn more about drug use in America, check the Partnership For A Drug-Free America.

SOURCES: Interviews with Will Brownsberger, J.D., lecturer, Harvard Medical School, senior criminal justice advisor, Join Together, Boston; Sharda Sekaran, associate director, public policy and community outreach, the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, New York City; July 18, 2001, Join Together
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