Possible bias in drug-free zone cases is focus of study

Emory Law | April 18, 2013

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Emory Law professor Kay Levine

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Emory Law professor Kay Levine is one of four researchers recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study whether drug-free zone laws are enforced more aggressively in inner cities, and whether that enforcement results in disproportionately harsher sentencing of minority-population males.

Drug-free zone laws, put in place since the 1980s, aim to shield the public and especially children from illegal drug deals and other associated crimes. Those convicted of dealing in drug-free zones face much stiffer penalties—anywhere from two to 20 years more prison time—than those convicted of similar crimes committed elsewhere, says Levine.

Drug-free zones are typically defined as anywhere within 1,000 feet of public housing, schools, or spaces where children congregate.

"In an inner city, almost everywhere is within 1,000 feet of a bus stop, a school, a public housing development, a park, etc., which turns inner cities into hyper-criminalized spaces," Levine says, adding that most criminology studies also suggest dealers sell within a few blocks of their homes.

"So if you put those two insights together—who's living in our inner cities, who's selling in our inner cities—it tends to be poor and minority, particularly male, populations," says Levine.

The three-year project, "Race, Place and Discretion in the Handling of Drug-Free Zone Charges," is funded by a $357,000 grant from the NSF to Rutgers University, where principal investigator Elizabeth Griffiths is an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice.

Through Levine's criminal law research and prior work with prosecutors in other agencies, researchers obtained the cooperation of a large county district attorney's office to use prosecutorial database information on 19,063 felony drug cases closed between 2001 and 2009. The county "has a dense inner-city population which differs quite dramatically in demographics from its suburban reaches," Levine says.

"We regard that already as a huge achievement in this project, that we've gotten [this district attorney's office] on board," says Levine.

GIS and mapping software will be used to determine if inner-city communities have a greater proportion of "hyper-criminalized" space than suburban or rural areas and "explore sentencing outcomes by defendant race and racial composition of the offense neighborhoods," the abstract reads.

Two faculty members from Georgia State University round out the research team. Joshua Hinkle is an assistant professor at Georgia State University who studies police enforcement in targeted areas; associate professor Volkan Topalli researches violence in urban settings, with a focus on the decision-making of street criminals.

Levine and Griffiths recruited Hinkle and Topalli after conversations with retired police officers and peers' suggestions that a missing piece in the study was understanding police discretion in enforcement of drug-free zones.

The study also will include interviews with current dealers to see whether the laws are considered a deterrent or a factor in where they sell.