Pubdate: Thu, 12 Jan 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Bookmark: (Drug-Free Zones)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


The mandatory sentencing laws that have swept this country since the 
70's have clearly done more harm than good. The inmate population has 
skyrocketed, driving prison costs to bankrupting levels, while having 
no impact at all on the drug problem. By taking away judicial 
discretion, the laws have led the country to write off first-time 
offenders who might have deserved second chances and to imprison 
addicts who could otherwise have been effectively and less 
expensively handled through treatment programs.

The laws have also discriminated against members of minority groups, 
who are disproportionately singled out for harsher mandatory 
sentences, often because of where they live. That issue has come into 
sharp focus in New Jersey, where a panel of criminal justice 
officials has recommended that the state revise a law that mandates 
more severe sentences for people convicted of certain drug crimes 
committed within 1,000 feet of school property.

The law appears to have had no impact at all on the actual pattern of 
drug dealing. But it has created a profoundly discriminatory 
sentencing pattern, which treats minority defendants unfairly while 
undermining confidence in the criminal justice system.

Offenders who live in cities, where populations are dense and the 
schools numerous, tend to fall under the drug-free-zone laws, not 
because they peddle drugs to minors, but because they live near 
schools. Offenders who live in suburban and rural areas, where drug 
abuse is just as common but where schools are more spread out, tend 
to fall outside the law, so they receive lighter sentences.

As a consequence, the report found, just about every offender 
incarcerated for a drug-free-zone offense in New Jersey is either 
black or Hispanic, even though those two groups make up only about a 
quarter of the population. Not a single one of the offenders had sold 
drugs to a minor, and fewer than 2 percent had actually committed 
offenses on school property.

The so-called urban effect of these laws is hardly unique to New 
Jersey. More than 30 states have passed such laws since the 1980's, 
thus turning whole swaths of largely black and Hispanic urban areas 
into extra-penalty zones. Though widely emulated around the nation, 
the 1,000-foot rule appears arbitrary and without basis in law. The 
New Jersey panel's study wisely recommends reducing the size of the 
zones and changing the law so it actually targets the few people who 
sell drugs at or near schools - without discriminating against minorities.

The broader message of this study is that the country can't just 
imprison its way out of the drug problem. Coping with this issue - 
while reducing prison costs - will require a complex set of 
strategies, including drug abuse treatment and prevention services 
and increased judicial discretion in sentencing. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake