Pubdate: Thu, 26 Jun 2014
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2014 The Denver Post Corp
Author: Jonathan Blanks, Special to The Washington Post
Note: Jonathan Blanks is a writer and researcher in Washington, D.C.
Page: 17A


Imagine this: two defendants, same age, smoke joints with some friends
one July evening in their apartments. Neither has a criminal record.
Both get caught; one faces an extra two years in jail.

Why? Because he shared drugs within a certain number of feet from a
school that's been out for a month.

The so-called "Drug Free School Zone" is one of many laws that create
extra penalties for already illegal acts with no reasonable tie to the
public's safety or the defendant's particular circumstances.

It hasn't always been like this. Historically, U.S. law and custom
have provided robust protections for defendants. Four amendments in
the Bill of Rights directly address rights during criminal
investigations. Until the 1800s, juries not only determined facts of
law-that is, whether the law was broken-but also whether the law in
question was just in the first place.

Unfortunately, these principles have eroded over time, particularly in
recent decades. Congress and many states have legislated harsher,
blanket punishments for crimes considered public priorities,
regardless of what a judge or jury might deem appropriate. Many times,
these laws are passed with the best of intentions, often in response
to tragedies involving young children. But they handicap judges and
juries, making it impossible for them to determine whether or not a
legislated punishment is reasonable given the facts of the case.

Moreover, harsh automatic punishments give prosecutors more leverage
to extract plea bargains from defendants, because a judge, upon
conviction, will be obligated to inflict a harsh penalty no matter
what sentence he thinks the defendant deserves.

In a nutshell, these laws instruct our criminal justice system, "For
the sake of the children, don't think!"

Take, for example, Drug Free School Zones. In all 50 states, selling,
manufacturing and sometimes just possessing illicit drugs within a
specified distance of a school, park, or daycare center may trigger a
higher punishment for the underlying drug offense. Some statutes are
written so broadly that huge swaths of major cities-often black or
Hispanic neighborhoods with high population densities- are covered by
overlapping Drug Free School Zones, negating any deterrent effect and
skewing enforcement against minority communities.

The stupid laws and rules promulgated over decades of "tough on crime"
rhetoric will take years to reform and correct. Throwing the book at
offenders with well-meant but misguided lawmaking has wreaked havoc on
correctional budgets.
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