Saturday, November 26, 2005

Calculating conviction

The Volokh Conspiracy blog brings to our attention an interesting New York Times article about drug-free school zones. You know, the area within a certain proximity of a school, where the penalties for drug possession and selling are dramatically increased.

In New York, as in many cities, anything within 1,000 feet of a school is considered part of the "no-go" zone. But what, exactly, does 1,000 feet mean?

NYPD alleges that James Robbins was within the drug-free school zone when he sold drugs to an undercover officer in March of 2002.
Law enforcement officials calculated the straight-line distance using the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) measuring the distance up Eighth Avenue (764 feet) as one side of a right triangle, and the distance to the church along 43rd Street (490 feet) as another, to find that the length of the hypotenuse was - 907.63 feet.
But Robbins's lawyers see it differently.
On foot, Mr. Robbins's lawyers argued, the school is more than 1,000 feet away from the site of the arrest, because the shortest route is blocked by buildings. But as the crow flies, the authorities said, it is less than 1,000 feet away.


Lawyers for Mr. Robbins argued that the distance should be measured as a person would walk it because "crows do not sell drugs."
Unfortunately for Robbins, the New York State Court of Appeals sided with the cops, 7-0. He's now serving a 6-to-12 year sentence.

Regardless of how the boundaries of drug-free school zones are determined, their efficacy at curtailing drug use and dealing is seriously questionable. According to one study of the school zone law in Massachusetts, the "statute fails to push drug dealing away from schools."

Another problem with the zones, according to Washington Monthly, is that they can virtually encompass entire cities.
A Congressional Research Service study of such areas in the District of Columbia, requested by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1995, estimated that at least 60 percent of the city fell into a drug-free zone. In New Haven, Conn., the only extensive space that's not part of one is the Yale golf course. In urban areas, drug-free zones often take up more space than they leave.
It seems like drug-free school zone statutes are little more than tools of the prison industrial complex. All they do is pack prisons with smalltime drug offenders and boost corrections budgets, while doing nothing to actually keep young people safe from the dangers of drug abuse.


Anonymous said...

So let me get this right....Your DARE group is FOR drugs being sold near schools? That's a little messed up.

Maybe if you were old enough and had kids you would realize how seriously messed up your group is. Your DARE certification should be revoked.

Micah Daigle said...


Our group, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, is fully cognizant of the fact that drugs are being illicitly sold near schools because our country's prohibition of some drugs (the Drug War) has done little to keep these drugs away from youth, and done much more to make them easily accessible to children.

Take this fun-fact for example: Almost every American high school student, when asked, will tell you that it is much easier for them to purchase marijuana than alcohol. This is because alcohol is a truly controlled substance, in that alcohol vendors must check identification. In the Netherlands, where marijuana is treated similarly to alcohol (only adults can buy the substance), teen use hovers at around 20%, while teen use in the U.S. is up around 70%!!!

And the problem not only exists with marijuana. Harder drugs--like heroin and cocaine--are cheaper, more pure, and more easily accessible because of the way in which we deal with these substances. Because the market is unregulated, these drugs become worth multiple-times their weight in gold, and the criminal black market thrives. Money is thrown at arresting low-level drug-users and drug-dealers (who are a dime-a-dozen), and hardly anything is spent on treatment or effective drug education.

Effective drug education... that doesn't mean the ineffective D.A.R.E. program. The D.A.R.E. Program has been thrown out of more and more public schools in the past years because it is incredibly counterproductive. Young people are fed misinformation about drugs (e.g. marijuana and crack are portrayed as equally dangerous substances), and when students grow up, they feel disillusioned and lied to.

The Drug War has failed our nation's youth. And we are in a position to say this because we are the DARE Generation, the young men and women who grew up during the escalation of the war on drugs, and have realized that it has been doing much more harm than good.

So please understand that we care deeply about the safety of children and support policies that keep them safe. But imposing a mandatory minimum sentence that is longer than one would receive for manslaughter--simply for selling drugs within an arbitrary distance from a school--is not one of these policies.

Micah Daigle said...

P.S. The DARE Program need not revoke my certification. I gave it back to them last year at their national conference. Read about it HERE.

Tom Angell said...

Well said, Micah.

Anonymous, I'll only add that my original post cited a study showing that these drug-free school zone statutes do NOTHING to keep young people away from drugs.

Maybe if your kids battled with addictions or convictions, you'd realize how much the costly and ineffective Drug War is "messed up."

Anonymous said...

Different anonymous here...

I live across the street from a school which has a Drug Free Zone sign on the fence next to the playground. The chances of anyone from that school knowing that I occasionally smoke pot is the same as the chances of that sign mowing my lawn for me.

These laws are intended to funnel people in urban areas to jail.

thehim said...

This blog has really gotten off to a great start. Well done, guys.

Kris said...

How anyone could interpret the post as an endorsement for drugs to be sold near schools is beyond me. However, the anonymous comment points to the political power of the Drug Free School Zone mandatory minimums. To publicly oppose the policy leaves one open to the soft-on-crime, give-crack-to-kids labeling by those who succeed politically by scapegoating and demonizing.

The School Zone laws are a perfect example of errant, discriminatory drug laws being touted as being in the interest of "the children." Of course, as has been pointed out, School Zone laws are truly ineffective and misdirected as tools for keeping young people safe from the harms caused by drugs.

Why? Here are a couple reasons off the top of my head:

A. The laws don't prevent people from selling drugs within 1000 feet of schools (particularly in urban areas), any more that the illegality of drugs prevents people from using or selling them. Laws, however punitive, simply don't deter. Look at Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc., let alone the United STates.

B. Punishing people who sell drugs disproportionately for their proximity to schools does nothing to address the desire, curiosity, etc., by many young people to take drugs. If a high schools student makes a decision to try or continue to use marijuana, School Zone laws ultimately do nothing to prevent this.

C. Punitive laws that do not discriminate geographically are already in place around the sale or provision of drugs to minors by adults– which is presumably the concern to be addressed by School Zone laws. In California, the provision of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or PCP to a minor by an adult is a STRIKE (as in Three Strikes law), in addition to sentence term.

When it comes down to it, the Drug-Free School Zone laws cause more harm than they prevent. Low-income and people of color communities– already disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs– take the brunt of the harsh sentencing resulting from proximity violations, due to inner-city demographics. Consequently, families in these communities are impacted by over-incarceration and post-release discrimination. So who suffers the most harm? The children.

Jonthon said...

Tom, Micah, and Kris, thank you. I generally consider myself an intelligent person, and especially well-versed in the area of drug policy reform, but I learned quite a bit from this post.

Permit me to be off-topic for a moment. I've noticed that we are attracting dissenters and trolls, and our posts are encouraging them to comment. Nothing could be better for our cause, and we should actively embrace these people when possible. That we are able to have such a blog, and initiate dialogue about these topics, is a success in and of itself, and perhaps the most valuable victory in terms of the larger effort.

I only caution that our tone be less caustic when necessary (though I am not insinuating that anyone was so here). I honestly believe that those who disagree with us do so on moral grounds, and their opinions must be changed, not aggresively toppled. Yes, they are wrong - but proving this to someone who holds this issue near to their heart (as opposed to their head) will not cause them to change their mind. And the changing of minds must openly be stated as our grander goal - those who can think critically can reach correct decisions, and we should always be helping people in that direction.

"What kind of victory is it when someone is left defeated?"
~Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Micah Daigle said...

Right on, Jon. I wholeheartedly agree!

I've had many experiences with "converting" people on the issue of drug policy reform by gently nudging them, rather than by pushing them over. In fact, two years ago at the DPA conference, Tom and I met a young woman who was mostly unsympathetic to drug policy reform. After an evening of drinks and unconfrontational conversation at the hotel's bar, she came around on the issue. Now she is one of the movement's premire activists!

Here's another quote: "I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend."--Abraham Lincoln

At some time in the not-so-distant past, I had to be similarly convinced of the merits of drug policy reform. Because of our early Drug War indoctrination, most of us did not take to DPR very easily. We all came around at some point or another... and I think it is wise to remember this when approaching others.

One other point though: There is a big difference between those looking to engage in real conversation, and people with nothing better to do than "flame" on blogs and message boards. When we first started this blog, I was accosted on AIM by someone who had read the blog and told me to "get a &$*@% haircut" (little did he/she know that I had gotten one that week!). If people insist on anonymously posting insults, rather than trying to engage in a real discussion, we should delete those comments, just as we would wash eggs from our front doors.

The anonymous poster, in this case, was seemingly not a troll... just someone concerned about the welfare of our society's children. And who can blame him/her for that??

BruceH said...

Here's a fun exercise: go to Google Maps and enter in "Schools Public" and the name of your city and state. Then do the same for "Schools Private" and "Preschool."

That should give you an idea of the size of the problem.