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Race, Place & Discretion in the Handling of Drug-Free Zone Charges

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Principal Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth Griffiths

Co-Principal Investigator: Kay Levine, Volkan Topalli, Joshua Hinkle


Since the 1980s, all states have passed “drug-free zone” laws providing added penalties for offenders charged with distributing, or possessing with the intent to distribute, any controlled substance in public locations surrounding schools, parks, and public housing. These laws are intended to keep illicit substances out of areas where children congregate, protect children from exposure to drug use, and foster safe public environments. Yet little is known about whether these laws have accomplished their intended objectives, under what conditions legal decision-makers patrol these zones and apply these charges, how the criminalization of public spaces may disparately affect minorities and the urban poor, and whether offenders consider the prohibitive “costs” of offending in drug-free zones.

Employing a sample of 19,063 felony drug cases closed between 2001 and 2009 in Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia, this research evaluates the conditions under which drug-free zone charges are included in felony drug case processing. Quantitative spatial analyses (using mapping software) will determine whether the proportion of hyper-criminalized space is greater in inner-city communities than in more suburban locales, and will explore sentencing outcomes by defendant race and racial composition of the offense neighborhoods. Additionally, interviews with police officers and prosecutors will examine whether drug-free zone charges are used conscientiously to incapacitate the most dangerous dealers, provide leverage in plea negotiations, and/or make communities and schools safer. Finally, interviews with active dealers will probe the extent to which the perceived costs of selling in a drug-free zone may be offset by apparent benefits, such as improved foot traffic or access to prospective customers.

This interdisciplinary, mixed methods study will extend our understanding of the collateral consequences of potentially discriminatory drug enforcement policy, thereby providing policymakers with insights regarding the efficacy of drug-free zone penalties and related place-based crime prevention policies.


Award Details

Start Date: April 1, 2013
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End Date:March 31, 2018 (Estimated)
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Awarded Amount to Date: $367,749.00