Pubdate: Thu, 10 Feb 2011
Source: Valley Advocate (Easthampton, MA)
Copyright: 2011 New Mass Media
Author: Maureen Turner
Cited: Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Drug-Free Zones)


Gov. Patrick Proposes Changing a Policy Critics Say Is Unfair and Ineffective.

The only thing new about Gov. Deval Patrick's recent proposal to 
shrink so-called "drug-free" school zones in Massachusetts is his support.

For years, advocates of criminal justice reform have been critical of 
the school zone law, which carries mandatory minimum sentences for 
drug crimes that take place within 1,000 feet of school property. 
While the law was passed in the name of public safety and the 
protection of children, critics say it's so broadly drawn that it's 
ineffective, and that it unfairly penalizes certain defendants on the 
basis of where they live.

At least some lawmakers have been sympathetic to those arguments, 
including members of the Legislature's joint Judiciary Committee, 
which in 2008 approved a bill that would have addressed some of the 
criticisms. That bill did not make it out of the 2007-2008 legislative session.

Now reformers have found an ally in the Statehouse's corner office. 
Last month, Patrick announced a proposal to dramatically reduce the 
size of the school zones, from 1,000 to 100 feet, as part of a plan 
to address a staggering projected state budget gap of $1.2 billion. 
The plan also includes proposals to close two state prisons and to 
ease sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders, all moves the 
governor contends would save much-needed money.

Patrick's school zone proposal has been met with resistance from 
expected sources within law enforcement circles. Still, proponents 
hope that this time, lawmakers will see the proposal as a wise move 
both from a public safety and an economic standpoint.

Peter Wagner, an attorney and executive director of Easthampton's 
Prison Policy Initiative, calls the governor's plan " a very 
exciting, common sense response to an experiment & that we now we 
know doesn't work, can't ever work, and actually does harm."


Massachusetts' drug-free school zone law began with another governor, 
Mike Dukakis. In 1989, Dukakis, fresh off an unsuccessful 
presidential campaign, announced a plan to impose mandatory minimum 
sentences of two to 15 years for anyone convicted of selling or 
distributing drugs within 1,000 feet of schools. The sentencing 
guidelines would apply regardless of the amount or kind of drugs 
involved, regardless of whether the person convicted had any previous 
criminal record, and regardless of whether children were present or 
school was in session at the time of the crime. The school-zone 
minimums would be applied in addition to any sentences given for the 
underlying drug offense itself, and could not be served concurrently 
with them. The bill was passed by the Legislature that summer.

Proponents of the bill described it as a way to protect vulnerable 
school kids from exposure to illegal drugs and the violence that 
often attends its trade. But a 2009 report by the Prison Policy 
Initiative cast serious doubts on the law's effectiveness, and 
pointed to its likely unintentional but nonetheless significant 
discriminatory effect.

In the report, "The Geography of Punishment," Wagner and co-authors 
Aleks Kajstura and William Goldberg found that school-zone laws 
subject urban residents to harsher penalties than residents of rural 
and suburban areas. That's because urban cores are densely populated, 
with more residents living within 1,000 feet of an institution 
protected under the law. (In addition to public and private schools, 
the drug-free zone law also applies to day care centers and Head 
Start programs. In 1993, the Legislature also passed a law creating 
100-foot drug-free zones around parks and playgrounds.)

In cities like Springfield and Holyoke, the report found, the large 
number of schools create multiple overlapping 1,000-foot zones, 
rendering entire downtown or urban core neighborhoods one giant 
"school zone." In Hampden County, the PPI researchers found, 
residents of urban communities were five times more likely to live in 
a school zone than residents of rural communities-a situation that 
has race-based consequences as well.

"Because Blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in urban areas, a 
law that enhances the sentences of urban residents does more harm to 
Black and Latino populations than to whites," the report noted. "This 
racial disparity in the populations covered by sentencing enhancement 
zones is a large part of why almost 8 out of 10 people convicted of 
zone offenses in Massachusetts are Black or Latino."

That, in turn, leads to incarceration rates that are disproportionate 
to the state's demographics. While African-Americans and Latinos 
comprise 12 percent of the state's population, they make up 58 
percent of its prison population.

And, the report noted, those mandatory minimum sentences come with a 
significant cost: the state spends more than $31 million each year to 
incarcerate prisoners sentenced under the school zone law, researchers found.


Yet for all that cost, critics say, drug-free school zones laws just 
aren't effective at deterring crime, because they're written too broadly.

The law was crafted to offer children special protection from drug 
activity by making it clear to dealers that they will face extra 
penalties for plying their trade near schools. But a 1,000-foot zone 
is so large-it extends from all borders of the school property, be it 
the front sidewalk or a faraway back field-that most people don't 
even know what the zone covers, or that it even exists at all, the 
PPI report notes.

In addition, the zones can ensnare drug activities that are in no way 
visible or connected to school kids-say, a deal that happens inside a 
private home after school hours.

And because the zones are measured "as the crow flies," a person 
could be within 1,000 feet of a school property they can't even see; 
in one striking illustration from the report, a person arrested for a 
drug crime on Bonner Street in Chicopee could be charged under the 
mandatory minimum law because he or she was within 1,000 feet of 
Holyoke's Dean Technical High School-despite the fact that the 
Connecticut River flows between the two points, with the nearest 
bridge a couple of miles away.

"When these laws were first put together, [legislators] made the 
assumption that anyone doing a drug offense within 1,000 feet of a 
school must be intending to include children in that offense," Wagner 
said. In reality, though, it's quite likely that the offenders might 
not even be aware that they're within a school zone-and that, Wagner 
says, robs the law of its intended purpose, to provide special 
protection to children.

"When the zones are so very large, they become meaningless," said 
Barbara Dougan, director of the Massachusetts chapter of Families 
Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, a nonprofit that advocates for 
sentencing reforms. "Nobody really understands whether they really 
are or are not within a zone, so [the laws] lose their deterrent 
value, they lose the very reason they were enacted.

"The one thing it does not do is deter drug transactions based on the 
knowledge that you're within a school zone," Dougan continued. "What 
it does do is impose harsher penalties on people because of where 
they live, not what they do."


Patrick's proposal directly addresses the charge that the current 
school zones are too large by reducing the 1,000 "protected zone" to 
100 feet. (The governor's plan does not reach as far as the bill 
supported by the Judiciary Committee in 2008, which also removed the 
mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders.)

Gregory Massing, general counsel for the Executive Office of Public 
Safety and Security, recently told the Boston Globe that the existing 
school zone law "is an overbroad law that doesn't do what it's 
supposed to do. Ultimately it fails to protect children and meanwhile 
incarcerates a lot of people for a lot of time at the government's expense.'

As supporters of reform make the case for Patrick's proposal, noted 
FAMM's Dougan, it's important to emphasize what the governor's plan 
wouldn't do. It wouldn't remove the mandatory minimum requirement; it 
would just limit it to crimes committed within tighter school zones. 
It wouldn't change existing laws that already impose strong penalties 
for drug crimes that involve guns or children. By law, a conviction 
for selling drugs to minors carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 
two to five years; employing minors in drug transactions carries a 
five-year minimum sentence.

"We already have laws on the books that have zeroed in on the whole 
notion, justifiably, of protecting kids from drug offense," Dougan 
said. "[Patrick] has drawn a bright line around drug offenses using 
violence or [involving] children. Those [penalties] do not change at all."

The governor's proposal, she added, would make school zones 
consistent with the 100-foot drug-free zones that already exist 
around playgrounds and parks. "Nobody has ever suggested that's not 
an effective-sized zone for parks and playgrounds," she said.


But a number of people are suggesting that shrinking the school zones 
would put kids at risk, and rob prosecutors of an important weapon in 
the war on drugs. They include some police department leaders as well 
as Attorney General Martha Coakley. In a statement released in 
response to Patrick's plan, Coakley said, "I do not believe that we 
should reduce this tool that prosecutors and police have to combat 
drug dealers. The school zones allow us to more effectively hold 
defendants accountable and serve as a deterrent for those engaged in 
drug dealing.'

Mark Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police 
Association and Northborough's police chief, recently told the Boston 
Globe that a 100-foot drug-free school zone would do little to buffer 
kids from dealers. "The fact that [drug deals] could occur within 100 
feet, within eye-shot and earshot of a school, bothers me a lot,' 
Leahy said. "The only possible benefit is that if the kids are 
playing kickball on the field and kick the ball over the fence, 
perhaps the drug dealers can return it to them.'

The strongest opposition to the governor's proposal is likely to come 
from Massachusetts' district attorneys-the ones, after all, who make 
decisions about which laws to use to prosecute defendants. 
School-zone convictions represent a relatively minor portion of the 
state's total drug convictions. According to the Massachusetts 
Sentencing Commission, in 2009, 294 people were sentenced after being 
convicted under school zone laws-about one-quarter of all convictions 
under mandatory minimum drug laws, and 3.6 percent of total drug 
convictions that year.

The school zone penalties do, however, serve a powerful purpose for 
prosecutors, providing them with leverage to get guilty pleas from 
defendants. Faced with a potential mandatory minimum sentence for a 
school zone violation on top of the penalties for the underlying drug 
offense, many defendants will opt to plead guilty to that underlying 
offense rather than risk the two- to 15-year sentence that comes with 
the school-based offense, PPI's Wagner noted.

"This is where the prosecutors really like this," he said. "You can 
give [defendants] an incentive to plead guilty, so they plead guilty 
to get a lower sentence, and they waive their right to a trial. &

"That's not the prosecutors' fault, but the reality is, if you give 
them an overbroad law, they will enforce it," Wagner continued. And 
that, in turn, "keeps the state from putting its resources into a 
better criminal justice process," or drug treatment and education programs.

What do the Valley's two newly sworn-in district attorneys think of 
Patrick's proposal? Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan 
voices limited support. "I am fully in favor of drug-free school 
zones. I favor a reduction from 1,000 feet to an appropriate 
distance. The drug-free zone should be greater than 100 feet, and, 
hopefully, the Legislature can establish a reasonable distance to 
safeguard children," Sullivan said in a statement in response to an 
inquiry from the Advocate.

At deadline, the Advocate was unable to reach Mark Mastroianni, the 
new district attorney for Hampden County-where, the 2009 PPI report 
found, prosecutors brought school zone charges more often than 
prosecutors in any other district attorney's office.

But in an interview with the Advocate last fall, before his election, 
Mastroianni spoke of the court backlog created by an overzealous 
prosecution of every charge that carries a mandatory minimum.

The then-candidate said he did not support abolishing school zone 
laws or others that carry mandatory minimum sentences. But, he said, 
"I think the district attorney's office needs to exercise a lot 
better discretion in who they apply them to. Because, let's be 
honest: some people are getting school zone charges because they're 
selling drugs in an apartment building that just happens to be down 
the street from a school, and they're doing it at two in the morning, 
and it has nothing to do with the school.

"But let me tell you, there are people who wait on a corner and do 
want to sell to kids on their way to school, and that's the kind of 
person [about whom] I'm saying, I'm so glad I have this school-zone 
statute, and I'm so glad to have mandatory minimums."

Given the powerful opposition it will face, do reform advocates think 
Patrick's plan has a shot at becoming law?

"I'm not a lobbyist, so it's a little bit outside my expertise," 
Wagner said. "But I think the governor's proposing this at the right 
time, when people are a little fed up with criminal justice policies 
that don't work, and are also looking to save money in the government.

"We absolutely want to protect children from drugs," Wagner added. 
"And we want to do so in the most effective way possible, and we 
don't want to do it by expensive laws that incarcerate the wrong people."
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