Report says downsizing sentencing enhancement zones would better protect children, save funds, and reduce racial disparities in incarceration

Peter Wagner
(413) 527-0845

January 27 - Massachusetts could save funds and improve public safety by overhauling a law that requires a mandatory sentence of at least two years for certain drug offenses committed within 1,000 feet of schools, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, an Easthampton-based nonprofit.

The sentencing enhancement zones were intended to serve as a geographic deterrent in order to protect children from drug activity; identifying specific areas where children gather and driving drug offenders away from them with the threat of an enhanced penalty.

“The legislature erred,” said report co-author Aleks Kajstura. “The law hasn’t worked. Setting the zones so large means it can never be expected to work, and it comes with enormous social and economic costs.”

Two decades of experience with the zone law have proved that it is not in fact protecting children from drugs. Drug usage among children is not falling. Drug arrests are not less frequent inside of the zones than outside them. Zone law prosecutions only rarely involve situations where children are present.

The 1,000-foot zone law fails to repel drug activity from schools while having a fiscally and socially devastating impact on the state of Massachusetts. Each year, the zone enhancement law accounts for 796 years of imprisonment on top of the sentences imposed for the underlying drug offense. With the state facing a $3.1billion shortfall and incarceration costing the taxpayer $47,679 for each prisoner each year, the state can ill-afford this kind of inefficiency.

Additionally, the report demonstrates that the sentencing enhancement law is biased against urban areas, with urban residents 5 times as likely to face an enhanced penalty because they happen to live within 1,000 feet of a school. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in urban areas, so the effects of the law fall most heavily on them. “Punishing these urban, Black and Latino communities more harshly is not warranted by differences in drug usage. Federal government surveys show that urban and rural people, and Black, Latinos and Whites, all use drugs at roughly the same rates,” said report co-author Peter Wagner.

“The legislature surely did not intend to create a law that would fail to protect children while incarcerating Latinos 30 times as frequently as Whites,” said Wagner. “But now the evidence is in, and it is time to fix the law.”

However, the simple fix of changing the size of the zones would allow the law to work as designed and eliminate the negative effects. “Smaller zones are not only more effective in protecting children, but they save taxpayer money while reducing racial disparities in sentencing,” said author Kajstura.

“This is really a win-win situation,” said Barbara J. Dougan, director of the Massachusetts office of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan sentencing reform organization. “Reforming the school zone law will enhance public safety while at the same time saving the state millions of dollars. In a time of fiscal crisis, this is one of the rare issues that demands less state money, not more.”

“I’m hopeful the legislature will fix the law and better protect children,” says Wagner. A number of proposals in the most recent and current legislative sessions would address the fundamental flaws in the original law and set the zones at a more reasonable distance.

The report Reaching too far, coming up short: How large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark, is available at:


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