If Rep. Lloyd Frandsen has his way, drug dealers had better steer clear of any place children congregate.
Frandsen, R-South Jordan, is sponsor of HB176, which expands the state's "drug-free zones" to include shopping malls, arcades, amusement parks, stadiums and preschools.Dealers who sell drugs within 1,000 feet of the zones could be sentenced to a minimum mandatory five-year prison sentence with no parole if they are convicted of a first-degree felony.
"It is, to the best of my knowledge, the strongest or toughest bill in the country for dealing with those who deal drugs," said Frandsen. "It sends a message if you're going to traffic drugs in Utah, it's the worst place in the country to do it."
The state already has a law that imposes enhanced penalties for pushers caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of public or private schools or school functions. But Gov. Norm Bangerter urged the Legislature to expand the "drug-free zones" to other places youths gather.
"Let's send a message to those who dare to deal drugs in this state: Stay away from our children," the governor said in his State of the State address Jan. 14.
Mark Jones, director of the state Office of Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said drug dealers go to great pains to make sure they operate at least 1,000 feet outside of public or private school property. Narcotics officers say they have watched suspected drug dealers measure the distance with their feet "to make sure they're outside where school activities are held."
Jones said the bill was drafted after the governor's drug summit last November, which was a think-tank of local, state and federal law enforcement officials, judges and prosecutors.
While the ultimate goal is stiffer punishment of drug dealers who sell narcotics to children, Frandsen said he believes establishing the zones will curb the pushers' access to young, impressionable children.
"You can't discount the effect access has whether or not they obtain drugs. Certainly we're minimizing the access," Frandsen said.
A 1990 study of the Drug Free School Zone in Broward County, Florida, showed that the zone - in conjunction with increased enforcement - resulted in a decline in drug sales, a reduction in household crime, an increased perception ofneighborhood safety and a greater sense of neighborhood well-being.
"If the Broward County demonstration has accomplished anything, it has provided us with positive, albeit preliminary evidence of program success; drug-free school zones work," wrote Severing L. Sorensen, director of the National Coalition for Drug-Free School Zones, in an assessment of the Florida law.
The Utah measure also provides enhanced penalties for convictions other than first-degree offenses. If a dealer is convicted of a second-degree felony, which carries a penalty of one to 15 years in prison, he or she would be penalized for a first-degree felony, which is punishable by five years to life imprisonment.
While there is widespread support for bill, legislative fiscal analysts estimate the law would cost approximately $455,000 to try cases and house prison inmates its first year. Because of the big price attached to the bill, it may be shelved until later in the session.
Frandsen said there may be some misunderstanding about the cost of the legislation because it will not necessarily cause the state to conduct more criminal trials. It simply establishes greater penalties, he said.
"We're fairly confident the fiscal note can be reduced. It can be very difficult to forecast these things. We're really plowing new ground here," Frandsen said. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Wednesday, and it has been forwarded to the full House.
But Frandsen said he believes the legislation is worthwhile because it gives law enforcement officials another means to stem the sale and use of illegal drugs. "It's a problem we have to confront.."
HB176 would expand drug-free zones to include:
-Public or private vocational schools or post-secondary institutions.
-Preschools and other child care centers
-Public parks, amusement parks, arcades and recreation centers.
-Churches and synagogues.
-Shopping malls, sports facilities, stadiums, arenas, theaters, and adjacent parking lot/structures.
-Public parking lots and structures.