Lawmakers consider changing drug-free zones to cut prison costs

Someone caught selling or possessing drugs in zones faces increased penalties

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Schools, churches, day care centers and other areas are drug-free zones in Florida. Someone caught selling or possessing drugs in them faces increased penalties.

Some urban areas are so cluttered with the zones, they essentially create entire regions where people are subject to harsh sentences.

There are 2,300 inmates in Florida prisons for selling drugs in a drug-free zone. It costs Florida taxpayers more than $46 million. The zones create enhanced penalties and, in some cases, mandatory sentences.

"And frankly, most people don't know about these enhanced penalties," Sen. Jeff Brandes said.

In 1987, when Florida first created drug-free zones, the law only applied to schools. Since then, seven new designations have been added, including churches, parks and convenience stores.

"Whether you're a foot away from a zone could be the difference between 15 or 30 years in prison," Brandes said.

The added zones have made some urban areas, where the population is disproportionately black, almost entirely drug-free zones. The result: Eight of 10 prisoners convicted with enhanced penalties are black.

Lawmakers are considering changing the zones to cut prison costs and make the laws more fair.

"We want something that's actually is going to have an effect," Brandes said. "Not just focus on punishment, but would actually focus on reducing crime. I don't know that the current situation actually does anything to reduce crime."

Other lawmakers believe the enhanced penalties do, in fact, deter criminals.

"I remember the gentlemen who robbed a store with a bow and arrow and was arrested, was caught and said he was desperate, but not stupid not to use a firearm because he knew the law would put him away for a long time," Sen. Aaron Bean said.

Some potential fixes include reducing the size of the zones, removing the designation from some places and narrowing the crimes that qualify for enhanced penalties in the zones.

Inmates serving time for offenses in drug-free zones make up 2.4 percent of the state's prison population. Florida currently spends $2.4 billion running the prison system.