Report says sentencing enhancement zones fail to protect children, increase racial disparities in incarceration

Contact: Peter Wagner,
Prison Policy Initiative
(413) 527-0845

July 26 - A Massachusetts law that requires a mandatory sentence of at least two years for certain drug offenses committed within 1,000 feet of schools is backfiring, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, an Easthampton-based nonprofit. The statute requires that people convicted of selling or possessing drugs with intent to distribute receive an additional sentence of two years if the offenses occurred within 100 feet of parks or within 1,000 feet of schools, Head Start facilities, or licensed daycares.

The legislature is considering changing the law. On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary introduced a criminal justice reform bill that includes changes in the zone law.

The report, “The Geography of Punishment,” examines sentencing data and the sentencing enhancement zones in rural and urban areas of Massachusetts’ Hampden County. (Hampden County is located in the western part of the state and contains both large cities and small rural towns.) “The legislature had good intentions when it passed the zone law,” said report co-author Aleks Kajstura, “but our investigation found that the zones are too large to be effective in reducing children’s exposure to drugs.”

The report shows the legislature erred in setting the zones’ size at 1,000 feet. “The zones are so large that they overlap and cover the majority of urban areas,” said Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director and report co-author Peter Wagner. “When you move out of one zone, it’s very easy to accidentally step into another. So drug dealers have no incentive to move.”

“Worse, we found that the heavy zone coverage in urban areas made many more Black, Latino, urban, and poor people eligible for enhanced penalties, even though rural White populations commit the same drug offenses at similar rates,” said Wagner.

The report’s findings include:

  • Residents of urban areas are five times more likely to live in a sentencing enhancement zone than those in rural areas.
  • Latinos are almost twice as likely as Whites to live in a sentencing enhancement zone.
  • Since the boundaries of the zones are nearly impossible to reliably estimate and avoid, the statute fails to move drug activity away from schools, parks and other locations where children are present.
  • People are difficult or impossible to see from 1,000 feet away, especially in urban areas, where even whole school buildings can disappear from view. The legislature should not have assumed that all drug offenders within 1,000 feet of a school are intending to sell to people at the school.

The report includes examples of locations where the zones cover areas that are far removed from schools, such as the zone around Dean Technical High School in Holyoke, which extends across the Connecticut River into Chicopee. It also includes photographs of various distances inside the zones, which demonstrate that a researcher 1,000 feet away becomes a barely-visible speck.

“One human being can barely see another from a thousand feet away,” said Aleks Kajstura. “One thousand feet is a massive distance, and one the legislature didn’t test before the law was passed. The legislature was wrong to assume that someone anywhere within 1,000 feet of a school property intends to sell drugs to children at school.”

Research conducted by William Brownsberger (now Representative, D-Belmont) in 2001 found that less than one percent of school zone cases involved cases where drugs were sold to minors. “This report demonstrates that the law is fundamentally flawed,” said Wagner. “It hasn’t worked, it can’t work, and it aggravates existing racial disparities in incarceration.”

The Geography of Punishment: How Huge Sentencing Enhancement Zones Harm Communities, Fail to Protect Children report is available at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/

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