Alabama Drug-Free Zones Result in Stiffer Penalties for Offenders

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On the surface, the concept of drug-free zones around schools seemed like a common-sense solution. Communities have a vested interest in preventing drug dealers from selling drugs to children. Thus, drug trafficking crimes committed within a certain radius of a school should be more heavily penalized.

However, the problem is these “drug-free zones” around schools, parks, day care centers and churches have begun to encompass virtually entire cities. It has resulted in a disparate number of increased felony-level punishments for those who commit drug crimes in urban areas, with such locations situated much closer together. Meanwhile, drug offenders in rural areas and suburbs (i.e., white communities) rarely face the same degree of consequences.

The majority of states passed some kind of drug-free school zone legislation in 1980s, following the panic over the crack-cocaine epidemic. Alabama was among those, increasing penalties for anyone convicted of selling narcotics within a three-mile radius of a university or school. In those instances, offenders will have an additional five years tacked onto their sentence. If that offense also occurs within a three-mile radius of public housing, they'll get an additional five years.

This is true regardless of such factors as substantial distance from the school site, the absence of the involvement of school children or even whether the offense occurred during school hours. A total of 31 states expanded the scope of “drug-free school zones” beyond just schools.

While our Birmingham drug crime defense lawyers know several states have enacted measures addressing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, only seven have specifically rolled back drug-free school zone statutes. Alabama is not one of those.

Take Massachusetts for example. Previously, the drug-free school zone radius was 1,000 feet. In 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick proposed reducing that radius to 100 feet, thereby lowering the risk of enhanced penalties intended for those selling drugs to youth. The measure ultimately passed the following year allowed for a 300-foot radius.

However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled recently in Commonwealth v. Thompson the measure was not retroactive. Defendant in this case reportedly sold crack-cocaine to two adults on a public street corner that was approximately 500 feet from school property.

Shortly after his conviction, the state Legislature amended St. 2012, c. 192, 30 to reduce the potential radius of drug crimes to 300 feet. The statute was retroactive – but only in cases where a violation was alleged but a guilty plea or conviction had not yet been entered. Defendant in this case was already convicted. The state high court ruled the Legislature's intention was clear – it was not to be applied to cases that had already resulted in conviction. The court found that would have required new trials be held, and that was not the intention of the statute.

A recent report by Think Progress indicates in Connecticut, where white people account for 70 percent of the population, they only account for 28 percent of drug-free zone arrests. This is despite the fact that numerous large studies have indicated whites use and abuse drugs at roughly the same rates as minorities.

Another study by the Prison Policy Initiative found there were some cities where more than 90 percent of residents lived in an enhanced sentencing zone.

Because of the severity of these penalties, it's imperative for those arrested for a drug crime within a “drug-free zone” in Alabama consult with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible.

Additional Resources:

What Happens When an Entire City Becomes Drug-Free School Zone, April 14, 2014, By Christie Thompson, ThinkProgress.org

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Birmingham, Jefferson County including Bessemer, Homewood, Hoover, Irondale, Leeds, Mountain Brook, Trussville, and Vestavia Hills, Shelby County (including Pelham, Alabaster, Chelsea, Calera), Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Huntsville, Calhoun County including Anniston, Etowah County including Boaz and Gadsden, Cullman County including Arab and Cullman, Madison County including Huntsville and Madison, Montgomery County including Montgomery, and all of Alabama.

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