Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2007
Source: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
Copyright: 2007 The Palm Beach Post
Note: Does not publish letters from writers outside area
Authors: Antigone Barton, And Christine Stapleton
Bookmark: (Drug-Free Zones)
Bookmark: (Drug Policy Alliance)


BOYNTON BEACH -- The 400 block of Martin Luther King Boulevard, where 
four men stood on a recent Sunday beckoning passing cars, doesn't 
appear to enjoy special protection from drug crimes.

But with two signs warning that this city street is a "drug-free" 
zone, this neighborhood of modest homes and aged apartment complexes 
is one of the front lines of a quarter-century-old "war on drugs."

It is a war that has seen years of casualties with no end in sight; 
the number of people imprisoned for drug-related crimes has only 
climbed each year since 1982. And while police say the heightened 
penalties for selling drugs in drug-free zones fortify their 
position, critics say the size and number of these zones have only 
increased the toll with a disproportionate impact on black offenders.

"The crimes aren't being displaced because there's nowhere to 
displace them to. There's no incentive for drug dealers to move," 
said Ben Barlyn, a New Jersey deputy attorney general who heads a 
state commission that in 2004 examined the impact of drug-free zones 
in that state.

That study, followed by two more, concluded that drug-free zones 
cover densely populated urban corridors where black neighborhoods 
predominate. As a result, researchers said, zones have created two 
systems of justice, penalizing black offenders for where they live as 
well as for their crimes, while white offenders who tend to live and 
work out of the zone face lesser penalties.

Those examining the impact of drug laws have pointed to other factors 
leading to disproportionate numbers of blacks serving time for drug 
crimes, including higher penalties for crack cocaine than powder 
cocaine, and for street narcotics than unauthorized prescription 
drugs. Racial profiling also has been cited as contributing to 
racially disparate incarceration rates.

While policy analysts have found all of these factors have led to 
longer prison sentences for black offenders and distrust of law 
enforcement in black communities, they cite one more problem with 
1,000-foot zones.

The zones, they say, have proven to be a losing strategy in the war on drugs.

Still, Florida lawmakers have continued to expand the zones and add more.

A Palm Beach Post study of the law's effects shows that the zones now 
blanket Palm Beach County's inner cities and:

Of 440 people arrested in Palm Beach County last year on "selling 
within 1,000" charges, 406 - 92 percent - were black;

Statewide, 80 percent of those charged with selling within 1,000 last 
year were black;

Application of the law is inconsistent, with cases dismissed for 16 
percent of white defendants and 6.6 percent of black defendants.

The numbers of people sent to prison on selling within 1,000 charges 
have climbed steadily in the past 10 years, with black convicts 
outnumbering whites 12-1.

On Boynton Beach's Martin Luther King Boulevard, two signs warn that 
this is a "drug-free school zone," while the sign down the block 
states that this is a "drug-free park zone."

Alone, either sign means that people caught selling drugs here can 
face more serious charges and more prison time than drug sellers 
elsewhere. Together, the signs mean two sets of raised charges and 
penalties. And, although no sign says so, churches in the 
neighborhood and the convenience store across the street mean dealers 
could face four criminal charges for one drug transaction.

The same four crimes can also be charged to residents of this street 
caught with saleable amounts of drugs in their homes.

That is because people living on this street live within the 
overlapping circumferences of four invisible thousand-foot circles.

Across Florida, these circles also surround community centers, 
day-care facilities, colleges, housing projects, and, after a 2005 
addition to state drug laws, nursing homes.

"Now they're protecting people who can't even leave the premises," 
said Anthony Calvello, a Palm Beach County public defender who 
appealed some of South Florida's first drug-free zone arrests to the 
state's Supreme Court. "What's the thinking behind all this?"

While lawmakers put them in all 50 states during the past 20 years, 
researchers have found the zones have not slowed drug selling.

"The premise was to protect certain places and drive drug dealing 
away from vulnerable people," said William Brownsberger, a former 
prosecutor and policy analyst, who in 2001 completed the first 
critical study of the law in Massachusetts. "But when every place is 
special, no place is special. What the laws do is lock people up for 
exorbitant periods of time for relatively low-level crimes."

Police, weary of arresting and rearresting drug dealers, say any law 
that keeps criminals off their streets for longer is valuable to them.

Opponents of the law say the money now spent on longer prison 
sentences could be better spent on drug treatment and entrepreneurial training.

'A nice fat round number'

Calvello calls the law establishing the zones "a draconian statute 
with no rationality."

To get an idea of how long 1,000 feet is, imagine standing at the 
corner of one city block and seeing what's happening three blocks 
away. A thousand feet is nearly a fifth of a mile, more than the span 
of three football fields and as long as the town of Briny Breezes.

Nobody seems to know how lawmakers concluded that 1,000 feet was the 
distance necessary to protect children from drug dealers.

"It was a nice fat round number," said Barlyn, of the New Jersey 
commission. "When push comes to shove, we find the law casts too broad a net."

In 1982, though, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond's proposal to add extra 
penalties to those caught selling within 1,000 feet of schools helped 
to set the stern tone for the "war on drugs" the Reagan 
administration had promised.

When Florida passed its own law in 1987, police in Fort Lauderdale 
set up stings within 1,000 feet of schools.

"There were about 50 of these cases," recalled Calvello, who appealed 
many of them. Judges threw out about 20 cases, saying that luring 
offenders into the zones was an unconstitutional application of the 
law. Prosecutors appealed those cases.

Defendants appealed the cases that weren't thrown out.

Calvello wrote the appeals brief for the State of Florida vs. Stacy 
Burch, representing Burch in an appeal of what was actually a group 
of cases, under the name of one of the first arrested under the law.

He argued that the law had a disparate impact on members of racial 
minorities of whom a greater number tend to live in the densely 
populated urban areas now decreed "drug free."

The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach rejected that 
argument and the case went before the Florida Supreme Court, which 
upheld the statute, saying it was not intended to be discriminatory 
but to protect children.

Many arrests, however, took place when schools were not in session.

"It could be midnight in the middle of July," Calvello said.

The Florida high court, along with other state supreme courts, also 
said it had seen no evidence that the law disproportionately affected 
black offenders.

That would have been impossible to prove in the early years of the 
law, Calvello said.

In the past 10 years, however, while the number of white offenders 
imprisoned on selling-within-1,000 convictions has tripled, the 
number of black offenders imprisoned on the charges increased tenfold.

"If these statistics are borne out, maybe the court should take 
another look at it," Calvello said.

The law's scope has only grown, with little investigation of its impact.

The Florida Legislature added a minimum sentence provision to the 
law, saying those convicted of selling drugs near a school would 
serve at least three years in prison. The provision had originally 
applied to drug buyers as well, but they, along with rapists, were 
exempted from mandatory sentences when the threat of explosive jail 
crowding became clear.

In addition to the 1,000-foot school zones, lawmakers added a number 
of smaller zones to the law, eliminating good behavior time-off for 
those convicted of selling controlled substances within 200 feet of 
public housing projects, vocational schools and public parks in 1990. 
In 1998, they tagged on day-care centers, places of worship and 
convenience stores.

In 2001, a research team in Boston headed by the former prosecutor 
and policy analyst Brownsberger found that dealers continued to sell 
drugs where they lived, with urban drug dealers simply paying stiffer 

Those penalties, he added, didn't "serve anyone because when they 
eventually do come out, they're often unable to function in society."

Crime 'deserves ... special severity'

While Brownsberger's study had found that drug sellers seldom sold to 
minors, a Hialeah high school civics class was pushing for a law to 
expand drug-free zones, saying that would better protect children. In 
2003, a bill based on their work and sponsored by Sen. Dave Aronberg, 
D-Greenacres, passed, turning previously 200-foot zones into 1,000-foot zones.

Aronberg keeps a photo on his wall of then-Gov. Jeb Bush signing the 
bill into law.

His intent, he says now, was to make sure that the law was consistent.

"If that means that drug deals are treated more seriously throughout 
the city, then so be it," he said recently. "I think this is a crime 
that is so destructive that it deserves to be treated with special severity."

Police in cities now consisting of almost uninterrupted "drug-free" 
zones agree.

"Obviously when we arrest drug dealers, we want them to get the 
highest penalty they can," said Sgt. Rick Ponce, spokesman for the 
Lake Worth Police Department, "because then they won't be committing 
crimes in the city."

West Palm Beach Lt. Thomas Wills said, "if it's within 1,000 feet, we 
will charge it 100 percent of the time."

The charge makes getting bond more difficult as well, helping slow 
the revolving door effect of drug sellers immediately re-offending 
after their arrests.

Called a distortion of due process

Gabriel Sayeth, of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based 
nonprofit organization that examines the effects of drug laws, said 
that clout comes at a cost.

"The idea of due process is distorted beyond recognition under these 
laws. The people who live in school zones face something that people 
living elsewhere never have to face - a very strong reason to plea 
out," Sayeth said.

The Drug Policy Alliance commissioned the study "Disparity by Design" 
that examined laws across the country in 2006, finding them to have 
been ineffective in reducing drug crimes, inconsistently enforced, 
and, with a record now of 20 years, indefensibly discriminatory.

In addition, researchers concluded that money spent on longer prison 
sentences would be better spent on drug addiction treatment.

Florida now spends an average of $49.61 a day - $18,108 yearly - to 
imprison each of its inmates, while the average cost for a person 
completing addiction treatment through Palm Beach County's drug court 
is $2,250 a year.

While it costs $90 a day to keep an inmate in the Palm Beach County 
Jail, the average cost of an inpatient treatment bed is $36 day, said 
Marty Epstein, assistant state attorney for the Palm Beach County Drug Court.

Recidivism for drug court graduates is about 12 percent, as opposed 
to close to 50 percent for those sentenced to incarceration.

"Show us the data that these drug-free school zones have accomplished 
what they were intended to do," Sayeth said.

Aronberg concedes he does not know what prompted lawmakers to 
surround schools with 1,000-foot zones.

"It's the first time I've heard there's a great racial disparity," 
said Aronberg, a former prosecutor. "It clearly had no racial bias in 
the intent. It had the unanimous support of the black legislative 
members. If the effects of the law show racial bias, I'll be willing 
to review that."

At least four other states had by 2005 begun to consider changes to 
their laws that would reduce drug-free zones from 1,000 feet to 200 feet.

In Florida however, legislators voted in 2005 to add 1,000-foot 
drug-free zones around nursing homes.

"I'd like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not. Florida tends to be 
weird," Sayeth said.

While 1,000-foot zones remain politically popular for state 
legislatures, Sayeth said, candidates for municipal offices have 
begun to make the law's effect on their communities a campaign issue.

And former Massachusetts prosecutor Brownsberger, who wrote the first 
critical study of the laws, is optimistic, especially now that he is 
a member of the legislature.

"There's a lot of sentiment that we've gone too far."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom