Drug-Free School Zones Could Contribute to NJ Prison System Racial Inequality

By Erin Delmore

Drug-free school zones. They’re meant to protect our kids but some experts say they’re the cause of staggering racial inequality in New Jersey’s prison system where black residents outnumber whites behind bars 12 to one. That’s more than twice the national average of five to one.

“Drug charges are part of the reason that we think that we see very high racial disparity around the country and the highest in New Jersey,” said Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project.

Drug charges are amped up in drug-free school zones. Getting caught selling, or in some cases carrying, drugs within 1,000 feet of school property was once a third degree felony warranting a three-year mandatory minimum sentence. Getting caught within 500 feet of public housing, parks, libraries and museums — a second-degree offense, which could also mean jail time. A report by The Sentencing Project says courts have interpreted the law to include daycare centers, job training sites and other educational buildings.

“Because of the way urban areas are situated, wherever you go, you’re going to be pretty much in the middle of a drug-free zone and unfortunately that presents problems because that means that the people in urban areas are probably going to be incarcerated a lot more than anyone else around the state who does not live in an urban environment,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham.

Cunningham has spent the last decade pushing for reform. Now, judges have discretion in sentencing, no more mandatory minimums for school zone violations. And school zone laws can be waived if a person is inside a private residence, as long as there are no kids present and the person doesn’t profit from a sale. But the size of the zones — 1,000 feet, or more than three football fields from a school perimeter — remains unchanged.

“This would be fine if in all areas schools and parks and playgrounds were located similar distances apart,” said Elizabeth Griffiths, associate professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.

Draw a 1,000-foot circle around a school in Trenton and you’ve roped in a more densely populated area than you would around a school in a smaller town, like Galloway. Add the parks, museums, etc. and you’ve patchworked most of the state’s capital. Galloway? Not so much.

“The effect of those is that it brings people into the criminal justice system who might otherwise be handled in community-based drug treatment centers,” said Nellis.

And, it’s disproportionately affecting minority residents. According to The Sentencing Project, “Nearly every defendant (96 percent) convicted and incarcerated for a drug-free zone offense in New Jersey was either black or Latino.” New Jersey lawmakers have been striving to address that disparity and reduce the state’s prison population.

“We’re all becoming very cognizant now of the inequality of the laws that we have governing our state,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said comprehensive bail reform, the “ban the box” movement, new expungement law and the use of drug courts are helping shrink that gap and get formerly incarcerated New Jerseyans back on their feet.