By Jo-Ann Moriarty
Republican (Springfield, MA)
July 26, 2008
WASHINGTON - In 1989, Massachusetts moved aggressively to protect its schoolchildren from being preyed upon by drug dealers, enacting a law that requires a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for anyone convicted of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.
"We want kids to be able to go to school without running the gauntlet of drug pushers," said former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis at the time.
Fast-forward almost 20 years, and there are questions from lawmakers, law enforcers and policy makers about the law: Is it just? It is racially discriminating? Does it work?
"I am concerned that the Legislature is using the wrong tool to solve the problem of drugs and the problem of community safety," said state Rep. William N. Brownsberger, D-Belmont. He has proposed amending the law to reduce the zone to 100 feet. It is part of a criminal justice reform package approved by the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday and due to be considered by the House before it ends its current session on July 31.
"The result of this law and some of the mandatory sentencing laws that we have is that we are putting too many people in jail for too long for these offenses," said Brownsberger, a Harvard-educated attorney. "Some of them need to go to jail, but the penalties are excessive and we are wasting money as a result."
A new study by the Easthampton-based Prison Policy Initiative concludes the law places poor, black and Hispanic populations at risk of harsher penalties simply because of where they live. The initiative is a national organization which mapped the impact of so-called "sentencing enhancement zones" in Hampden County in a study of the law.
Executive Director Peter J. Wagner, co-author of the report with Aleks W. Kajstura, said the law is used more frequently - 2½ times the state average - in Hampden County than any other county in the state. The patterns of conviction show the law "has more effectively created a two-tiered system of drug sentencing," the report concluded.
In the report, Kajstura said, "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."
"Because schools are more numerous in dense urban areas, most urban residents - including most of the state's black and Latino residents - face longer mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses than the state's rural residents, who are predominantly white," they wrote.
Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett supports changing the existing law to give law enforcement more flexibility in dealing with first-time offenders who have no history of violence.
"The law is effective," he added. "We don't have drug dealers hanging out in school yards, which was the whole idea to protect children. In practice, there have been incidents you would not want to impose the two years because of a variety of reasons."
Hampden Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who emphasized that her role is to enforce laws not write them, said she sees the benefit of having more discretion for sentencing than the existing school zone law allows.
As an example, she said, an 18-year-old with no record who is pulled over for a traffic violation off an interstate ramp and drugs are found in the car, would face an automatic two-year prison sentence and, possibly, up to a minimum mandatory of 10 years "without any discretion to look at the circumstances," she said. A convicted felon involved in an armed robbery could, in contrast, secure a plea agreement with less prison time, she said.
"A drug offense, as toxic as it is to society, does not pose the immediate threat of death," she said, as in the case of an armed crime.
Sweeney said she supports proposed "truth-in-sentencing reforms" authored by state Trial Court Chief Administrative Judge Robert A. Mulligan because they set up guidelines to consider many factors and allow district attorneys the right to appeal sentences.
State Rep. Cheryl A. Coakley Rivera, D-Springfield, who is also a attorney, doesn't see where the existing law has reduced drug violations in the city. She is concerned for first-time offenders, age 22 and younger who are involved in non-violent drug charges and face two years in prison.
"We are immediately crippling them for the rest of their lives," Rivera said. "I think we did a disservice to the taxpayers when we did this. For less money, we could have changed the lives of these children and young adults and work with them."
The study found that residents of Hampden County's urban communities are five times as likely to live in a "sentencing enhancement zone" as its rural residents.
So, for example, while half of the population in Springfield, and nearly 60 percent of Holyoke, live in school zones, in suburban Wilbraham or rural Russell or Blandford, only 12 percent of residents live in school zones. In little Montgomery, where there is no school, no one lives in a school zone.
The result, according to the study, is that while 29 percent of white county residents live in an enhancement zone, 52 percent of black and Latino residents are similarly situated. Much of this has to do with the fact that cities like Holyoke and Springfield are less white than the county's more rural and suburban stretches. But even within Holyoke, the study found, the disparity is apparent with 76 percent of Holyoke Latinos living in a zone compared to 45 percent of whites.
What the report refers to as the "geography of punishment" helps explain, according to its authors, why blacks and Latinos make up nearly eight of 10 of those convicted of school zone offenses in Massachusetts.
State Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, told The Republican that while the original law "was well-meaning," it also resulted in "some critical unintended consequences."
"In the city of Springfield, within the district I serve, it would be difficult. if not impossible. to locate a place which would be beyond 1,000 feet of a school," Swan said. "Many elected officials will admit that the mandatory sentencing has been a disaster, yet it is difficult to correct - few are willing to take the first step to make necessary corrections for fear of being labeled soft on crime."
Almost every state has some version of a law providing stiffer penalties for drug offenses near a school.
"It is often about 1,000 feet," Wagner said. "In Alabama, it is 3 miles. But Vermont's statute is smart. It is 500 feet and applies only to properties adjacent to the school."
The problem is that in most cases the zone extends 1,000 feet in every direction, and for practical purposes, it is not at all obvious to potential offenders that they are in a school zone or, as in the case of Holyoke, what patch of land they would have to repair to in order to not be in some school zone.
Holyoke Police Chief Anthony R. Scott, who has zero tolerance for drug dealing in his impoverished city, values the mandatory sentencing as a "deterrent to drug dealing." He wants to see the law stand as it is.
Most of Holyoke is within a school zone, and Scott said perhaps these individuals should wake up and say, 'I shouldn't sell drugs at all (and) then I don't have to worry about the minimum mandatory.'"
©2008 The Republican