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September 25, 2012

State’s tough drug-free zone law may be on its way out

INDIANAPOLIS — Some key legislators want to do away Indiana’s tough, penalty-enhancing “drug-free zone” law, saying it no longer serves its original intent of protecting children from drug dealers.

The 1987 law can double or more the prison time for people caught with illegal drugs within 1,000 feet (equal to about three football fields) of a school, park, apartment complex or housing project.  

It was supposed to create a safe harbor around places where children gather. But critics question whether drug-free zones actually deter drug activity and instead result in unfairly harsh penalties that drive up prison costs.

State Sen. Brent Steele, an influential Republican lawmaker who’s already said he’ll push in the next session to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, believes it’s time for the drug-free zone law to go.

The Bedford attorney and legislator said it is a “stupid, illogical” law that was born out of good intent but put into practice poorly.

He cited studies, including one by DePauw University, that show drug-free zones now encompass huge areas in cities and towns and that the law has been used to nail people who didn’t know they were in a drug-free zone and who showed no intent of selling drugs to children.

Steele offered an example of a defendant caught with drugs in his home that was located within 1,000 feet of a school. “It was late at night and there were no children around,” Steele said. “Is that what we really trying to prevent?”

It’s a question the Indiana Supreme Court has looked at as well. In an important precedent-setting decision in February, the court reduced the 20-year prison sentence of a Kokomo, Ind., man convicted of possessing a relatively small amount of marijuana and cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school.

The court said that had he been caught outside the 1,000-foot zone, he would have only faced a maximum prison term of 18 months. The court ruled that his 20-year sentence was “inappropriate” because it didn’t fit the nature of the offense.

The court issued a similar opinion in another drug-free zone law case in June.

Steele, long seen as a “tough on crime” conservative, plans to carry legislation in the next session that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code. He said his bill will include language that does away with the drug-free zone law that allows prosecutors to raise the felony offense level of someone charged with a drug-related crime that occurs within one the zones.

On the House side, state Rep. Jud McMillin, a fellow conservative Republican from Brookville, will likely carry the House version of the bill. McMillin said it’s time for Indiana to rethink the drug-free zone law.

“If our goal is to keep drugs out of the hands of children, this is not the way to do it,” McMillin said.

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council is expected to oppose the elimination of the drug-free zone law. The Indiana Public Defender Council, meanwhile, supports such a move.

The legislative Criminal Code Evaluation Commission is expected to take up the issue on Oct. 4, as they continue to review recommended changes to Indiana’s criminal laws.

Scheduled to testify at the hearing is Kelsey Kaufmann, a DePauw University political science professor whose students conducted a research project on the drug-free zone law and found that it had disproportionate impact on urban areas and on African-Americans who live in cities with a high number of drug-free zones.

Kaufmann has presented the research before to lawmakers, but this time around it may resonate more loudly, as fiscal conservatives like Steele and McMillin line up with more liberal legislators to take up the effort to reform Indiana’s drug laws.

“I don’t see it as a conservative versus liberal issue anymore,” Kaufmann said. “Drug-free zone laws, as constituted now, in fact undermine the legitimate function they were designed to serve.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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