Friday, October 9, 2015

GateHouse: Crime-free zones do more harm than good

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
October 9, 2015
Officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, are considering whether to create “public safety zones,” areas within the city where people with past convictions, and merely arrests, would be restricted from entering.

Charlotte is not the first city to pursue such restrictions. In 2011, North Arlington, Texas, home of Cowboy Stadium, made the neighborhoods around the stadium prostitution-free zones before and during Super Bowl XLV.

In 1992, Portland, Oregon, was the first jurisdiction to create drug and prostitution exclusion zones. Some crimes, such as prostitution, easily fit into zones where all such activity is closely monitored and aggressively pursued.

Fifteen years later, former Portland Mayor Tom Potter abolished the zones, saying they just moved criminal activity to new areas and that African-Americans were being disproportionately excluded from the designated areas.

This is not Charlotte’s first foray into unusual attempts to curb crime. In 2005 the city created “prostitution-free zones” that later expired after three years, having made no real impact on crime. Two years ago, in another crime fighting innovation, according to the Charlotte Observer, the city was granted an injunction that barred gang members from the Hidden Valley Kings from associating with one another.

One obvious problem with public safety zones is the wide net they cast. An individual with an arrest, not just a conviction, may be prohibited from entering a safety zone. This limits a former offender, or a non-offender for that matter, access to employment, accommodations, medical treatment and other essential services and recreational activities.

The other problem with public safety zones is that people of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. As a result, minority and low-income neighborhoods will be disproportionately affected by public safety zones.

Research by the Justice Policy Institute conducted in Massachusetts and Connecticut supports the notion that urban communities of color are disproportionately impacted by prohibited zones, and that enforcement of the laws have little or nothing to do with protecting the public. Research also suggests that there may be sharp disparities in the way crime-free zone laws are enforced.

Under Charlotte’s controversial proposal, the police chief could designate a high-crime area as a safety zone in response to crimes such as drug sales or discharging guns on public property.

Someone who has been arrested for crimes in the area could be issued a notice that they are no longer allowed to enter, for as long as the safety zone is in effect. Entering the zone after being prohibited would result in a misdemeanor charge.

According to Justice Strategies, a Brooklyn based nonprofit research organization, a stunning 96 percent of New Jersey prisoners sentenced under the state’s drug-free zone laws were African-American or Hispanic. In Connecticut, majority nonwhite cities had ten times more zones per square mile than cities where less than 10 percent of residents were African-American or Hispanic.

Charlotte City Council member Al Austin told the Observer, “We were looking for additional tools that could address some of the criminal behavior. … We want something more flexible.” There is some urgency to finding new solutions. Violent crimes — including homicides — are up this year in Charlotte compared with 2014.

“Truthfully, I don’t know if they will do any good,” said city council member Claire Fallon, who chairs the public safety committee. “If someone doesn’t obey the law, do you think a safety zone will impress them?”

The uses of crime-free zones as proposed in Charlotte have the potential to do more harm than good. Stigmatizing former offenders and alienating individuals who are under court ordered supervision may make neighborhoods less safe and citizens more vulnerable.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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