Drug-free zone laws are among the most longstanding sentencing policies in America’s War on Drugs. In 1970 – 12 years before President Ronald Reagan officially used the term “War on Drugs” – Congress passed an early version of a law increasing penalties for certain drug offenses committed near schools. In the 1980s, many state governments began to do the same. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of drug-free school zone law.
The premise behind drug-free zone laws was that drug trafficking near schools posed a danger to children. In order to protect children from drug activity, lawmakers established protected zones around the places where children were most likely to be present, including schools and public parks. Individuals caught using or selling drugs within the protected zone faced substantially higher penalties than others who engaged in the same conduct outside the zone.
The application of drug-free school zone laws has proved problematic for several reasons:
- First, in the sentencing schemes of several states defendants may face two distinct penalties for a single offense.
- Second, the laws are frequently drafted so broadly that they result in enhanced penalties for drug offenses that are a substantial distance from a school, that do not involve school children in the offense, or take place outside of school hours. In Alabama, for example, a drug sale that takes place as much as three miles from a school, college, or public housing project is subject to a mandatory five-year prison term.
- Third, because protected areas are clustered within urban, high-density population areas, the zones disproportionately affect people of color and economically disadvantaged citizens.1
In recent years, these problems have led at least seven states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and South Carolina, to reform their drug-free zone laws. This briefing paper provides an overview of these statutes nationally and an assessment of reform activity in recent years.
Greene, J., Pranis, K., and Ziedenberg, J. (2006). Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity – and fail to protect youth. Justice Policy Institute.