Study: Drug-free zones are missing the mark
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.