Professor argues for changing drug-free school zone laws

New Jersey’s drug-free school zone mandates and their consequences were explored by Bruce Stout, associate professor of criminology, on Oct. 1.

His presentation was titled, “Report on New Jersey’s Drug-Free Zone Crimes and Proposal for Reform” and was created by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, of which Stout is a public member.

The law Stout discussed was the 1987 statute of drug reform that was passed during the height of the crack epidemic in New Jersey. Stout said the provision’s goal was to create deterrents for selling and buying drugs.

“New Jersey’s drug-free school zone law mandates enhanced punishment for those that distribute, or possess with intent to distribute, illicit narcotics within 1,000 feet of school property,” according to Stout’s presentation.

According to Stout, the distribution of drugs is a third-degree offense that carries a sentence of incarceration. Typically, third degree offenses do not result in imprisonment, he said.

States are now examining the expensive laws. Stout also said since the law passed in 1987, the New Jersey prison population has quadrupled.

When revisiting these laws, it was found the statute was not meeting its goals of deterrence and the creation of safety zones, Stout said.

“In fact, arrest data shows no evidence of a displacement effect,” Stout said. “We would also expect evidence of a deterrent effect.”

The unexpected “urban effect” of these school zone mandates has shown no substantial decrease. Part of the reason, according to Stout, is that in urban areas the 1,000-foot zones overlap and there are no areas to displace to.

Stout said, “76 percent of the city of Newark is encompassed in a drug-free zone.” In contrast, only 6 percent of the rural town of Mansfield in Burlington County is covered in drug-free zones.

“As the degree of urbanization increases, the probability that drug distribution offenses will be committed in a statutorily defined drug-free zone also increases,” Stout explained.

According to Stout, 96 percent of people incarcerated from drug-free zone offenses in New Jersey are black and Latino.

“We need to change this law,” Stout said. “It doesn’t create safe havens and has a disproportionate effect.”

Stout participated in photographic studies to help determine the future of the law. There were also mapping studies on the drug-free zones. Eventually, the commission compromised and reduced the size of drug-free zones to 200 feet, eliminated mandatory minimum sentence for school zone offenses and upgraded the drug-free zone offense from a third-degree to a second-degree offense.

According to Stout, the new law has not been posted. An alternative bill, which keeps the 1,000-foot drug-free zone but removes mandatory sentencing was proposed, but both bills are still awaiting further legislative action.

“Nothing has changed,” Stout said. “That, my friends, is some of the difficulties of criminal study reforms.”