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July 28, 2008

An Urban Bias in Massachusetts' Drug-Free Zone Law?

As detailed in this press release, FAMM reports that Massachusetts' drug-free zone law may be leading to increased punishment for minorities and the poor who reside in urban areas.  The law in question currently imposes a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for offenders convicted of certain drug crimes within 1,000 feet of school property.  FAMM suggests that in densely populated urban areas, where schools and people are packed closely together, the law effectively transforms the entire urban area into a drug-free zone, and punishes drug offenses occurring in urban areas more harshly than the same offenses occurring in suburban areas.  Here is a relevant excerpt:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national, nonpartisan organization working for fair and proportional sentencing laws, says that Massachusetts is not alone in confronting problems caused by mandatory minimum drug and drug-free zone laws.  "This report provides yet more evidence of the unintended -- yet very harmful -- consequences of well-meaning but counter-productive legislation.  Massachusetts' joint Judiciary Committee understands the issue, as it recently filed House Bill 5004, which would reduce the size of school zones and eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for first time offenders.  We strongly support these Committee proposals, which would protect public safety while ensuring fair and proportionate sentences," said Barbara J. Dougan, director of the Massachusetts FAMM project.  "Reform of drug and drug-free zone laws could save the state millions in corrections costs and reduce the human and fiscal waste of mandatory minimum drug sentences," said Dougan.  "FAMM welcomes the opportunity to work with the Patrick Administration and legislators to this end."

Massachusetts' drug-free zone laws require a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of distributing or possessing with intent to sell drugs within 1,000 feet of school property, or 100 feet of parks or playgrounds.  The report shows that 1,000 foot zones are so large that most drug activity within them has nothing to do with children.  When an entire urban area becomes a drug-free zone, the law has no deterrent effect.  Instead, it punishes drug offenses occurring in urban areas more harshly than the same crimes committed in rural or suburban communities.

"The report illustrates the shameful racial disparities that result from drug-free zone laws.  People of color are hit hardest.  Urban residents are five times more likely to be subject to these laws.  According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, a staggering 81 percent of those convicted of zone violations were African-American or Latino," said Dougan.

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July 28, 2008 at 01:55 PM | Permalink

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The same discriminatory impact has been noted in connection with drug-free school zones in Utah, Florida and New Jersey. See http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/?inc=article&id=420&x=a-new-sentence&_c=news--drug-roar and http://druglaw.typepad.com/drug_law_blog/2007/07/palm-beach-post.html and http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=283801

At some point, the question is no longer whether such zones create unfair impacts. The question is whether there is the political will to acknowledge and address a problem that is really quite glaring.

Posted by: Alex | Jul 28, 2008 6:24:44 PM

I have an idea. If you don't want to get a drug zone penalty - DON'T SELL DRUGS!

It is overly simplistic to call these laws evidence of bias. Another way to look at it is that society is expending extra resources to protect the urban communities which are ravaged by drugs.

Posted by: Alan O | Jul 29, 2008 9:24:07 PM

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