Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jun 2008
Source: Times, The (Trenton, NJ)
Copyright: 2008 The Times
Author: Lisa Rich
Bookmark: (Drug-Free Zones)


Proposal To Reduce Them To 200 Feet

Extending 1,000 feet in each direction, invisible borders around each 
school in the state help to keep children off limits to drug deals and users.

Drug-free zones circle all schools and public buildings in New 
Jersey, with hefty fines and mandatory incarceration for anyone 
caught using or selling drugs within the boundaries.

But for cities such as Trenton -- relatively small and boasting more 
than 30 schools -- debate is mounting in Mercer County among 
lawmakers, educators and community officials on whether the zones 
should be reduced from 1,000 to 200 feet.

"Reducing the zones would have our children pass through a (phalanx) 
of drug dealers every day," said school board Vice President 
Alexander Brown. "This would bring drug trafficking 800 feet closer 
to our schools. Some legislators believe the zones have placed a 
hardship on drug dealers. To me, I say 'tough.'"

The proposal to reduce drug-free zones to 200 feet is one of several 
legislative bills addressing changes within the zone law.

Other bills recommend decreasing the zones while stiffening penalties 
for those caught dealing drugs within them. Another bill aims to give 
judges more discretion when sentencing drug-zone offenses.

Opponents of the drug-free zones argue the law targets minorities in 
urban areas and unfairly doles out prison sentences to non-violent 
offenders who could be rehabilitated in other ways.

Robbinsville Superintendent John Szabo said he understands the 
problem with zones in urban districts, but he doesn't want to see the 
zones decrease in the township.

"The farther we can keep drugs away from our schools, the better," he 
said. "Really, that's the bottom line."

Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D- Hudson, the primary sponsor of the 
legislation to downsize the zones, contends drug-free zones are so 
large, they cover entire sections of many cities.

Indeed, significant portions of Trenton fall under various drug-free 
zones, said Police Lt. Stephen Varn.

"When you take the number of schools in Trenton and draw that 
thousand-foot radius around each one, it obviously does take up a lot 
of our area," Varn said.

City officials estimated 80 percent of the city, where more than half 
of the population is black, falls under a drug-free zone.

In 2007, 560 people in Trenton were charged for possessing or 
distributing drugs within the drug-free zones, Varn said. An 
estimated 120 arrests have been made within the zones this year.

State data indicates urban cities like Trenton far outweigh their 
suburban and rural counterparts when it comes to the number of drug 
arrests that occur within the zones.

According to a study by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal 
Sentencing, fewer than 19 percent of drug distribution arrests in 
rural municipalities occurred within a drug-free zone in 2004. By 
contrast, more than 81 percent of drug arrests in urban areas oc 
curred within a zone during the same year.

"The Legislature is trying to address discriminatory practices," said 
Trenton board member T. Missy Balmir, referring to the study. "I 
think we need to be careful before we take a stand on this issue. I 
would like more information on how our city is truly affected by 
drug-free zones."

According to the commission, 96 percent of people jailed for deal ing 
drugs within the zones are black or Hispanic. The commission argued 
two years ago that drug-free zones do not hinder drug sales near schools.

"If 96 percent of the people incarcerated under the drug-free zone 
law are black or Hispanic -- groups that only make up 20 percent of 
our state's population -- it's not a fair system," said Roseanne 
Scotti, director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey.

"Plus, there is no evidence that drug-free zones hinder drug sales," 
Scotti said. "Basically, this law amounts to two different penalties 
being given for the same exact crime -- the only differences between 
the two penalties are geography and race."

State law calls for mandatory minimum jail sentences of one to three 
years -- plus a $15,000 fine -- for those who sell drugs or possess 
them in significant quantities within 1,000 feet of schools or 500 
feet of parks, libraries, museums or public housing projects.

"I think that's an economic drain for the state of New Jersey, among 
issues of fairness," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson- Coleman, 
D-Ewing, who has introduced a bill to keep the drug-free zones at 
1,000 feet while giving judges more discretion in sentencing.

"Was the person dealing drugs to students? Was school even in session 
when they were arrested?" Watson-Coleman said. "The judge should be 
able to determine the impact on society, the appropriate remedy, and 
then sentence accordingly."

Under Watson-Coleman's bill, carrying a Controlled Dangerous 
Substance would go from a third-to a second-degree crime, allowing 
the judge to issue imprisonment for five to 10 years and pose a fine 
of $150,000. But the judge could consider other penalties as well.

Officials across Mercer County said they would support changing the 
penalties for dealers caught in a drug-free zone, but reducing the 
zones to 200 feet would be disad vantageous to students.

Drug-free zones "should be everywhere," said Lou Goldstein, spokesman 
for Princeton schools.

"To narrow it to 200 feet doesn't make any sense," Goldstein said. 
"In my personal opinion, the (legislators) are going in the wrong 
direction. They should be expanding the zones out as far as they 
can." Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Lawrence, said she also favors expanding 
the zones.

"I think the entire city of Tren ton should be a drug-free zone, 
that's my position," Turner said. "Every municipality should be drug-free."

Trenton City Council President Paul Pintella would also like to see 
drug-free zones expanded.

"I understand the challenge behind urban districts where schools are 
directly in the heart of neighborhoods; but we shouldn't make 
exceptions for the people who live there," Pintella said. "They 
shouldn't be selling drugs in the first place, especially to our kids."
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