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Drug-free zones are taking some hard hits across the country, with legislators, lawyers and civil liberties activists calling their effectiveness into question. Critics charge that the zone laws, which exist in 33 states, are racially discriminatory. They assert the zones blanket entire urban areas and unfairly punish minorities with harsher drug sentences than suburbanites. “Our data shows that those mandatory sentences are quite disproportionately taken by minorities, many of whom live in urban areas,” said Judge Robert Mulligan, the chief administrative justice in Massachusetts. “And when you’re in an urban area, you’re almost always within a thousand feet of a school. And if you’re in a suburban area, you’re not.” Mulligan added, “I don’t have a problem with trying to keep drugs away from school children, but I don’t think this is effective.” In New Jersey, legislators have introduced a bill that would tighten drug-free zones around schools and parks, and increase penalties for people who violate laws in those zones. In Oregon, Portland residents are being asked by city officials to voice their concerns about the city’s “drug-free zones,” which are scheduled to be renewed on Feb. 2. Last year, a lawyer unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the zones, which have been challenged a number of times but upheld by Oregon courts. In Massachusetts, the arrests of 18 people charged under the state’s drug-free school zone law incited a civic rebellion last year and prompted the formation of the Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice group, which supports reforming drug-zone laws to eliminate mandatory sentences. A useful tool But David Capeless, the district attorney in Berkshire County, Mass., who pressed the school-zone charges against the 18 defendants, is a strong supporter of drug-zone laws, calling them an effective tool in curbing drug crimes and keeping dealers off the street. “We believe they’ve worked,” he said. “It’s difficult to quantify, but we’ve been able to prevent crime, and we’ve been very successful in fighting against drug dealers, prosecuting them and getting them out of the community.” Capeless has taken some heat from local critics for charging seven older teenagers with school drug-zone violations, which call for a minimum of two years in jail. He’s been accused of being too harsh on the suspects, who were arrested for allegedly selling marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy to an undercover cop in a drug-free school zone. “There needs to be discretion,” argued Ira J. Kaplan, a solo in Great Barrington, Mass., who got several calls from parents seeking legal advice about the school-zone arrests. Kaplan said a key problem with drug zone laws is that prosecutors “who wield them sometimes do not exercise discretion. “It’s a waste of money,” Kaplan said. “It’s a waste of time. At the end of the day, juries are going to say not guilty as long as you got DAs who do not exercise discretion.” In New Jersey, judges would have more discretionary power in drug-zone cases under a proposed bill to reform drug-zone laws. The measure, introduced last month, would cut the size of drug-free zones around schools from 1,000 feet to 200 feet, and from 500 feet to 200 feet around public parks, public housing and other public buildings. Offenders would face five- to 10-year terms, compared with the current three to five years. And mandatory minimum sentences would be eliminated, giving judges more discretionary power. The New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing released a report last month with several recommendations for reforming New Jersey’s school-zone mandatory minimum sentencing law. The report made a number of findings, including: The law unfairly affects minorities, as 96% of all inmates in New Jersey whose most serious offense is a school-zone violation are African-American or Latino. Two out of 10 suburban or rural drug-distribution offenses occur within school zones, compared to eight out of 10 urban distribution offenses that occur within school zones.

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