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December 29, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Drug War, Minus Signs, Persists

By Kevin Coyne

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AS he drove slowly along the streets he first traveled more than 40 years ago, when he was still a young parole officer who wished he could do more than just check in and move on, David Kerr was looking for a sign.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen one,” he said about the signs that are meant to mark the 1,000-foot perimeter around all schools within which the penalty for dealing drugs is mandatory and more severe than elsewhere. “The problem is, there are schools everywhere. ‘Entering Newark, Drug-Free School Zone,’ that’s what the signs should say.”

But block after block, school after school, none were to be found. The “Drug-Free School Zone” signs may be mostly gone here in the Central Ward, but their impact persists, and they have surfaced again at the center of a policy debate that exposes the wide gulf between the two New Jerseys: the one that is dense and urban and heavily black and Hispanic; and the one that is not.

“It snares everybody, and really does nothing but put nonviolent addicts in jail for a long time, people who should be in treatment instead,” said Mr. Kerr, 65, who left his state parole job in 1968 and started what is now the state’s oldest and largest drug-treatment center, Integrity House, which has 360 always-full beds -- in one large building in Secaucus, and 18 smaller ones in Newark -- and a waiting list of 450. “It’s clear it’s just a net that’s very biased toward any community that has schools close together, like Newark.”

It was hard to argue against drug-free school zones when they were established in New Jersey as part of a tough antidrug law in 1987. Crack was spreading, and the war on drugs was escalating, arming the police and prosecutors with new legal weapons. Dealers anywhere near schoolchildren? Lock them up.

“Obviously it has a kind of noble ring to it,” Mr. Kerr said, as he drove past one of the Integrity House properties, a small apartment building that the group is renovating to provide beds for 40 women. “But a lot of things have had noble rings in the drug war and have proven not only to be ineffective but actually damaging to the whole cause.”

Like many other people who travel daily through lives and neighborhoods that have been broken by drugs, Mr. Kerr has a message he would like the rest of the world to understand: Criminals are often addicts -- he has been mugged six times, and felt a knife against his throat -- but addicts are not always criminals. For nonviolent drug offenders, treatment works better and costs less.

“Unfortunately, our whole system has been misled into believing that ‘tough on crime’ means more incarceration,” he said.

The tide, though, seems to have begun turning. In recent weeks, the United States Supreme Court made federal judges less beholden to strict sentencing guidelines, and the United States Sentencing Commission reduced the sentences of almost 20,000 federal prisoners convicted on charges related to crack, which had drawn more severe punishment than other drug crimes. And in New Jersey, the debate about drug-free school zones surfaced again.

A map of the drug-free zones in Newark looks as if it had been spread beneath a leaky roof -- a school (or a public housing complex, library, park or museum, which have 500-foot zones) where each drop fell, and a creeping damp spot from each, an interlocking series of circles that, if you remove the airport, make up more than three-quarters of the city. Other dense New Jersey cities are similarly covered by such zones.

In 2005, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing found that 96 percent of all those in prison for school-zone offenses were black or Hispanic, and recommended that the zones be reduced to 200 feet and that the penalties within those smaller zones be increased.

A bill to do that went nowhere in the State Legislature. If you wonder why, just picture yourself as a legislator in a white suburban district, and then imagine the advertisement an opponent could run against you -- shadowy figures lurking outside the school doors.

In October, Gov. Jon S. Corzine asked another panel to look at the earlier commission’s findings again. This time all 21 of the state’s prosecutors, as well as the attorney general, endorsed the proposals, and also recommended expanding the state’s drug court program, which emphasizes treatment over prison.

“The current school zone law does not effectively deter drug activities in urban centers and the legislative purpose -- to create a safe haven for children around schools -- is thwarted,” the report said. But again the proposal has stalled in the Legislature.

Before he started driving in search of a sign, Mr. Kerr had spent the morning at the monthly breakfast of Bridge to Recovery, a group that brings together a variety of people who work with addicts. This month’s was beneath the basketball backboards in the fellowship hall of Bethany Baptist Church, and it had a Sunday-morning feel to it -- 150 people singing, praising, testifying, joined by a belief that addiction is an illness than can be conquered, and that the cities can be made whole again.

“People where I live probably figure, well, lock them up,” said Mr. Kerr, who grew up in Verona and lives in Glen Ridge. “But in Newark they’re their brothers and sisters and sons and daughters that they’re locking up. It’s a personal matter.”

And then he drove around another corner, where the signs were gone, but the law, and its consequences, lingered.

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