82% of Drug-Zone Defendants Are Black; Lawyer Sees ‘Gross Disparity’

Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 12, 2010

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Of the 551 prosecutions launched under the state’s Drug-Free School Zone Act, or DFSZA, since the formation of a joint initiative by the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office to target repeat offenders, 82 percent have involved black defendants.

“It’s a gross disparity,” said attorney Susan Shipley, who is raising the issue in Knox County on behalf of a defendant. “The disparity we’re seeing here is something the (U.S.) Justice Department needs to look into. This is not Memphis. There are only 9 percent (of Knoxville’s population that are) African-American in this community.”

Here’s the rub, as Shipley sees it. People caught with as little as a handful of crack cocaine “rocks” in the inner city often merit probation sans a DFSZA charge.

But those same offenders charged with a drug-zone violation face 15 to 25 years in prison with no possibility of parole–a penalty harsher than that meted out to killers convicted of second-degree murder.

Because Knox County is comprised, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers, of more than 80 percent white citizens, Shipley said she assumes the majority of the population here may not care. But, she insisted, they should.

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Under the DFSZA, anyone caught possessing or peddling dope within 1,000 feet of a school is subject to a huge boost in punishment.

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John Gill, special counsel for Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols, called Shipley’s claim of racial unfairness in application of that law “bull.” Police and prosecutors, he insisted, don’t control the demographics of the crack trade. It is crack and powder cocaine that most often form the basis of DFSZA cases.

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[Knoxville PD Lt. Gene] Sasscer insisted that anyone caught with drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or day care is slapped with the drug-zone enhancement regardless of race.

“We’re not targeting black people,” he said. “We’re targeting drug dealers and gang members.”

Shipley countered that the DA’s office is using KPD and the DFSZA to unfairly cast blacks as the city’s primary drug sellers, despite the fact that blacks make up less than 10 percent of the city’s population. And, she added, few if any of those cases actually involve drug deals either made to schoolchildren, on school grounds or even within view of schoolchildren.

“If this were white kids getting busted (under DFSZA), there would be an incredible outcry,” Shipley said.

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