Hugh Gentry / Reuters

In 1970 a new trend in narcotics law began to spread: Legislators began creating Drug Free School Zones, imposing harsh penalties on drug crimes committed within them. The theory behind these zones was straightforward: kids are the last people we want drug dealers to target; schoolyards are the last place we want them plying their violent trade; so why not create an incentive to keep drugs elsewhere? “Drug-free zones around schools offer communities one way to give students a place where they can play and talk without being threatened by drug dealers and drug users,” one sheriff’s department declares on its webpage.

Then the same webpage offers some confounding advice:

Don't stop at the school's boundaries. Expand your drug-free zone efforts to any area besieged by problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse.

You can see the problem: If a community subjects all areas with drug abuse to harsher penalties, the incentive to keep drugs away from schoolyards vanishes.

And yet, jurisdictions all over America fell into that very trap.

The perverse results are captured vividly in a Reason investigation conducted by Lauren Krisai and C.J. Ciaramella, who marshal policy data and mapping technology to clarify exactly how encompassing some of these zones are. They focus on Tennessee:

Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area. Within cities, however, the figures are much higher. More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones. They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.

"In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says. "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones. Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification. And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone. What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."

The ubiquity and opacity alone undermine the ostensible purpose of the zones. And then there is the wrinkle that most directly contradicts the policy’s core logic.

“We found several instances of judges chastising police for setting up undercover buys in drug-free school zones, and criminal defense lawyers told us it was not an uncommon occurrence,” said Ciaramella. “It's contrary to the entire purpose of the zone—to keep drugs out—and gives the appearance that police are more interested in slapping drug offenders with enhanced sentences than keeping kids safe.”

“Nobody thinks we should make it easier to sell drugs to kids,” Krisai added. “But nobody thinks police should set up drug deals closer to schools or parks––potentially endangering kids––just so the dealer will get a longer sentence, either. We found the latter happens all the time.”

And those longer sentences?

In many states they have effectively meant harsher penalties for poor people, because drug-free school zones were expanded to include public housing. People in relatively wealthy neighborhoods thus risked one punishment for selling or possessing drugs, while people in relatively poor neighborhoods risked a much harsher penalty. The disparity contributed to racial inequities in sentencing and incarceration. Taxpayers were on the hook for bigger prison bills.

Some states have recognized these problems––and Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Indiana, Delaware, Kentucky, and South Carolina have passed some reforms. But many states and localities retain overbroad drug free zones.

“This isn't just an urban issue. By analyzing mapping data, we found city limits within rural counties are just as covered by these zones as their more urban counterparts,” Krisai said. “If all states made this mapping data available, we could visualize just how covered every state or city is. Seeing all of the zones on maps, like the ones we made, is stunning. People realize that they swallow whole towns.”

(The maps they created of Tennessee are here.)

When a policy doesn’t achieve its intended purpose, regularly incentivizes the opposite outcome, and hits the poor and racial minorities harder than everyone else, it ought to be repealed. And that ought to be the fate of many if not all Drug Free School Zones. Implemented with the best intentions, they’ve failed as an experiment, doing more to increase the power of prosecutors than the safety of children. Why not substitute a penalty for selling drugs to kids and be done with it?

This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

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