By Lisa Rosetta
The Salt Lake Tribune
[...] Stories like Tafoya's have prompted Kurt Garner, vice chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, to ask the Legislature to rethink the state's drug-free-zone penalty enhancement, which applies to both the possession and sale of drugs within 1,000 feet of schools, child-care facilities, parks, churches, shopping malls, sports facilities or parking lots.
The law, designed to keep drugs away from children, has instead created disproportionately long sentences for some offenders, coerced others into pleading guilty to weak cases that would have otherwise been challenged at trial or dismissed, and been inconsistently enforced by police and prosecutors.
Garner said in one rural county, police arrested a man who had used drugs, put him in a patrol car and drove him past a school - a drug-free zone - so they could seek the stiffer penalty.
In other counties, police have deliberately set up undercover buys in church or school parking lots, or initiated stops in front of a parking lot to trigger the more serious charge, Michael Sibbits, former chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole, wrote in a letter to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
Most offenders slapped with the enhanced penalty have never dealt drugs or used drugs around children - the very people the law is supposed to protect. [...]
[...] A report by the Justice Policy Institute also showed:
* In Massachusetts, less than 1 percent of the drug-free-zone cases examined involved sales to youths, and 71 percent occurred when school was not in session.
* In Connecticut, legislative research staff found there was no appreciable decline in drug use or drug trafficking since the introduction of mandatory drug laws, including the state's drug-free-zone law.
* In Washington, prosecutors and defenders alike acknowledge that, rather than sanction those who sell drugs in the presence of children, the state's drug-free-zone laws are used as leverage to encourage guilty pleas. Faced with prison time, many defendants choose to plead guilty rather than challenge the case at trial. Among those cases that did make it to trial, only 22 percent resulted in a drug-free-zone penalty enhancement.
* In Illinois, 99 percent of youths transferred to the adult court in Cook County for drug-free-zone enhancements were black or Latino.[...]