April 6, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 34

Study: Drug-free zones are missing the mark

Howard Manly

Mitchell Lawrence was 17 years old at the time, and as far as he knew, a new-found friend wanted to smoke marijuana in a parking lot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Lawrence had a small amount, and when the friend suggested that Lawrence sell him a little, he readily agreed, especially considering that the friend offered $20 to buy a little more than a gram.

Little did Lawrence know that the “friend” was an undercover drug agent, Detective Felix Aguirre, and that the supposed sale of marijuana occurred within a 1,000 feet of a school zone.

It took a jury less than an hour last week to convict Lawrence on single counts of distribution of marijuana, committing a drug violation within a drug free zone and possession of marijuana. Instead of finishing his senior year at Monument Regional High School, Lawrence must serve a mandatory sentence of two years at the Berkshire County House of Correction. Worse, Lawrence, now 18, will have a criminal record for the remainder of his life.

Lawrence’s parents sat in the front row as the jury read their verdict. They quietly cried.

If a two-year sentence for the possession of a little more than one joint appears a little harsh, then consider a report recently released by the Justice Policy Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding alternatives to incarceration.

The national report, “Disparity by Design: How drug free zones laws impact racial disparity – and fail to protect youth,’’ includes research from Massachusetts and finds that school zone laws do not meet their intent in protecting young people from drugs. The zones, the Institute further argues, fail to reduce drug sales and disproportionately impact minorities.

“School zone laws have remained unchanged in Massachusetts because the legislature has been promised that prosecutors use discretion,” said Whitney A. Taylor, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. “Unfortunately the life of a young man has been sacrificed, proving that discretion is not being used and that the law must be changed.”

The Massachusetts data on drug enforcement in three cities found that less than one percent of the drug-free zone cases actually involve sales to a youth. The researchers also found that non-whites are more likely to be charged with an offense that can carry a drug free enhancement than whites engaged in similar conduct. Blacks and Hispanics account for 20 percent of Massachusetts’s residents but 80 percent of the drug free zone cases.

Created during the crack-crazed days of the eighties to protect school children, drug-free zone laws provide stiffer penalties for drug offenses that occur within restricted areas – usually about the length of three football fields – surrounding schools, public housing projects, parks and playgrounds. Many drug-free zones require mandatory minimum prison terms, thus denying judges any discretion to determine fairness on a case-by-case basis.

The Justice Policy Institute contends that drug-free zone laws disproportionately impact communities of color. Prohibited zones blanket densely populated urban neighborhoods, where people of color are more likely to live, while rural and suburban neighborhoods are less affected. In Connecticut, for instance, cities where the majority of residents are non-white have ten times more zones per square mile than localities where less than 10 percent of residents are black or Hispanic.

“For two decades, policy makers have mistakenly assumed that these statutes shield children from drug activity,” said report co-author Judith Greene, a New York based researcher. “We found no evidence that drug free zones laws protect children, but ample evidence that the laws hurt communities of color and contribute to mounting correctional costs.”

Efforts are underway across the country to change the laws. In New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington State, bills have been proposed to sharply reduce the size of the zones.

But these efforts are too late to help Lawrence. Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless had the discretion to charge Lawrence with only a misdemeanor but chose instead to charge Lawrence with the more serious counts. During the trial, Berkshire assistant District Attorney Robert Kinzer III wasn’t buying any arguments against the drug-free zone laws. “You don’t get to come in here and decide what laws are fair or unfair,” Kinzer argued.

Lawrence testified that he thought Aguirre simply wanted to get high, not make a purchase. Lawrence further testified that he sold the marijuana because he was hungry and needed money to buy something to eat. More important, Lawrence testified, Aguirre offered him an amount of money that was twice the value of the marijuana.

Lawrence’s defense attorney, Richard A. Simons told the Berkshire Eagle that the case against his client was unfair to say the least. “The dogged prosecution of the school zone charge in this case illustrates the danger and unfairness of mandatory sentencing,” Simons said shortly after the trial. “The result is that Mitchell Lawrence received a sentence that is so disproportional to other first time offenders who have committed more serious crimes than he. Justice was not carried out today, and that makes me very sad.”

Simons said he plans to appeal the verdict.




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