With two signs warning that a Palm Beach street is a “drug-free” zone, its neighborhood of modest homes and aged apartment complexes is a front line of a quarter-century-old war on drugs, says the Palm Beach Post. Police say the heightened penalties for selling drugs in drug-free zones are effective; critics say the size and number of these zones have only increased the toll with a disproportionate impact on black offenders. A New Jersey study, followed by two more, concluded that drug-free zones cover densely populated urban corridors where black neighborhoods predominate. As a result, the zones create two systems of justice, penalizing black offenders for where they live as well as for their crimes, while white offenders who tend to live and work out of the zone face lesser penalties.
A Palm Beach Post study shows that of 440 people arrested in Palm Beach County last year on selling-within-the-zone charges, 406 – 92 percent – were black. Application of the law is inconsistent, with cases dismissed for 16 percent of white defendants and 6.6 percent of blacks. The numbers of people sent to prison on the charge have climbed steadily in the past 10 years, with black convicts outnumbering whites 12-1. “The premise was to protect certain places and drive drug dealing away from vulnerable people,” said William Brownsberger, a former prosecutor, who in 2001 did the first critical study of the law in Massachusetts. “But when every place is special, no place is special. What the laws do is lock people up for exorbitant periods of time for relatively low-level crimes.” Police, weary of arresting and rearresting drug dealers, say any law that keeps criminals off their streets for longer is valuable to them.