School Zone Laws Don’t Work
by Peter Wagner, March 12, 2009
I wrote this op-ed for the Valley Advocate on March 12, 2009.
One out of every three Massachusetts school zone convictions is in Hampden County [see “Urban Penalty,” Feb. 26, 2009]. The law requires judges to give a mandatory two-year sentence to anyone convicted of certain drug offenses within 1,000 feet of a school. The one-size-fits-all law prohibits judges from giving more appropriate sentences to minor offenders who pose no risk to children. The state can ill afford a law that disproportionately incarcerates Black and Latino minor drug offenders for long sentences without affording children any extra protection.
The state legislature is considering reforming the school zone law, but Hampden County District Attorney Bill Bennett can take action today. The law gives prosecutors the discretion to look at the facts and decide whether or not an enhanced penalty is appropriate. Hampden County seeks the school zone sentencing enhancement in all cases where it could apply. Justice would be better served if District Attorney Bennett brought his prosecutions in line with the rest of the state. Hampden County is only a small part of the state and should not be taking up such a large portion of the state’s prison and jail cells.
Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative