Ostensibly aimed at protecting children, “drug-free zones” typically boost prison sentences for drug offenses that involve only adults. The zones trigger enhanced penalties for drug dealing or possession within a certain radius (usually between 500 and 1,500 feet) of locations such as schools, parks, and day care centers.
Depending on the distance specified, the kinds of locations included, and the density of the city, the zones can include more than they leave out. In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, the only substantial piece of land not covered by a drug-free zone is the Yale University golf course.
As a result of this overinclusiveness, notes a March report from the Justice Policy Institute, the zones have become an excuse for harsher punishment rather than a deterrent to selling drugs near children. A December report from New Jersey’s sentencing review commission found that students were involved in only 2 percent of cases where drug-free zones were invoked.
The New Jersey report also found that 96 percent of the offenders were black or Hispanic. Minorities, who already are more likely to be arrested for drug dealing, are even more apt to be arrested in drug-free zones, which cover a larger percentage of the territory in urban neighborhoods than in the suburbs.
Map (not available online): New Haven Drug-Free Zones
Source: Office of Legislative Research, Connecticut General Assembly