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Report: Mass. sentencing laws not doing the job

St. John Barned-Smith

Calls for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws received some added support recently from a report by a Massachusetts incarceration think tank that claims current policies are failing to keep children safe from the dangers of drugs.

At issue are so-called “sentencing enhancement zones,” according to the report unveiled last month by the Northampton-based Prison Policy Initiative.

The zones were originally designed “to serve as a geographic deterrent in order to protect children from drug activity [by] identifying specific areas where children gather and driving drug offenders away from them with the threat of an enhanced penalty,” according to the report.

But Massachusetts’ mandatory minimum laws have largely missed the mark, says initiative executive director Peter Wagner. Under the current law, certain drug offenses carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in jail if they are committed within an “enhancement zone,” defined as the 1,000-foot area surrounding a school.

According to Wagner, the abundance of Head Start centers, accredited day care centers and other schools leave few areas in cities and towns that are not considered special enforcement zones.

“If you make everywhere special, nowhere is special,” Wagner said.

The result, he argues, is legislation that not only fails to specifically deter the sale of drugs near schools, but also unfairly targets drug users caught possessing narcotics in these zones who are not intent on selling to schoolchildren.

“The legislature made the assumption that within 1,000 feet” of a school, people “were intending to sell to children,” Wagner said. “But only 1 percent of those cases involve children. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the law punishes people who weren’t trying to sell to children.”

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report recommends reducing the scope of the boundary to 100 feet, which Wagner said will create zones that would more effectively stop drug use near schools.

“One hundred feet wouldn’t cover an entire populated area,” Wagner said. “It would make certain areas special.”

The report also underlines other problems with Massachusetts’ mandatory minimum laws. One highly contentious issue is the claim that the sentencing requirements disproportionately affect minorities.

According to the report, blacks and Latinos account for 80 percent of the state’s special enforcement zone convictions, and are between 26 and 30 times more likely to receive a mandatory enhanced sentence.

Opponents of mandatory minimum laws also say the requirements unfairly handcuff judges by eliminating alternative options during sentencing. On top of that, Wagner said, by giving prosecutors more leverage to encourage defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges so that they can avoid the minimum sentences, the laws can actually result in people receiving longer periods of imprisonment.

The laws have practical downfalls for the state as well, said Wagner. Chief among them: They’re bleeding state coffers dry.

“With the state facing a $3.1 billion [budget] shortfall and incarceration costing the taxpayer $47,679 for each prisoner each year, the state can ill-afford this kind of inefficiency,” Wagner wrote in the report.

Mandatory minimum opponents have been trying to bring more attention to the matter by making their presence felt at a series of civil rights hearings being held throughout the state.

Barbara Dougan, executive director of the Massachusetts branch of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, recently e-mailed her members to encourage them to attend the last of the meetings (to be held on March 10 in New Bedford) to voice their opposition to the laws.

“People who live in urban areas get punished more severely than people who live in suburban areas,” Dougan said, even though “statewide, the data shows drug use is roughly equivalent.”