Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Monday, March 27, 2006

Crime and Punishment

The B'ham news, in this story, summarizes a study on Alabama's drug free school zone laws, which add a mandatory five years to the sentences of drug dealers.

Alabama's "drug-free" zones, which extend three miles from every school, college and public housing project, are the largest in the country, researchers found. . . . "There is no evidence, nor has any come up since the report's been released, showing any deterrent affect as a result of the laws," said author Kevin Pranis. "The evidence that we found all points in the other direction, no deterrent effect."

Criminal laws serve purposes other than deterrence: Punishment, Incapacitation, Rehabilitation. No one would argue that Alabama's prisons rehabilitate anyone. That leaves punishment and incapacitation, which the drug laws certainly accomplish.

But do they accomplish it too well? I mean, is a mandatory five year sentence disproportionate to the crime of selling drugs within a specified zone?

The answer would be no if the seller was an adult, the buyer an elemetry school student, and the location a school. On the other hand, the mandatory additional years seem excessive if the sale is between adults in a private residence. The crime is not the most serious type while five years in prison will destroy the lives of the imprisoned and his family. (Read this if you want more information on the human costs of the 'war on drugs.').

The problem with these laws is that they do not take account of the specific facts of each case. If you sell within the zone, you get the extra five years regardless of whether you sold in your home to an adult, or at a school to a child. That is, you face the penalty whether or not what you did actually deserves it.