School Zone Sentencing Enhancements and its Disparate Effect on Racial Minoritie

By: James Kane

Illicit drug use is a troubling public health issue that has gained the attention of both parents and government lawmakers. A primary concern is the prevention of drug exposure to children and many states have taken to establishing drug-free school zone laws in which heightened sentencing guidelines are used. These guidelines establish harsh mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenders arrested within 1,000 feet of schools, regardless of the child involvement. These laws, while well intentioned, have adversely affected minorities in densely populated urban areas because there are large concentrations of schools in these areas which in effect create an “all-encompassing drug-free school zone.” Nationwide, there is a disproportionately large number of minorities living in these densely populated urban areas and these sentencing enhancements are heavily applied to them.

In New Jersey, the N.J. Sentencing Commission released a study which reviewed the demographics of individuals charged with these drug-free school zone offenses and found that 96% of those convicted under their laws were black or hispanic. Given the original intent of these laws was to protect children from being exposed to drugs, it seems that these laws have also failed in their original purpose as the vast majority of drug arrests do not take place on school property and did not involve children. When the nearly $100 billion budget during the Bush and Reagan administrations are taken into account, this system has proven to be an incredibly expensive one to maintain and one that disproportionately is applied to minorities. While illicit drug use remains a prominent public health issue, the federal government needs to come up with a more economically efficient and effective way to implement these laws, perhaps limiting the sentencing enhancements to arrests on school grounds in order to prevent this disparate effect on urban minorities.

Taylor R. Overman, A “Dubious Distinction”: New Jersey’s Drug-Free School Zones & Disparately Impacted Minority Communities, [XXXIV] Bos. C. J. of L. & Soc. Just. (2014).

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