Mandatory Jail Sentences for Drug Convictions Within 1000 Feet of School Must Change

Just last week, I criticized Gov. Deval Patrick for his proposal to change the way public defenders are provided for indigent criminal defendants. Today, I want to do just the opposite: Commend him for another of his proposals dealing with criminal law.

Specifically, Gov. Patrick should be lauded for his legislative initiative to repeal the current law in Massachusetts that requires mandatory minimum jail and state prison sentences for anyone convicted of “dealing” drugs in a “school zone.” I’ve blogged and spoken previously on the foolishness of mandatory minimum sentencing, which almost always results from a Legislature pressured to act on largely misdirected public anger following high-profile crimes. Several years ago, that public pressure descended on the Legislature primarily due to inner city frustrations over the problem of drug dealing in urban areas; specifically, from parents’ fears that drug dealers were actively targeting young school children to sell drugs to. The result? The Massachusetts Legislature passed a law that required mandatory minimum jail sentences for anyone convicted of any kind of an offense involving a controlled substance or otherwise illegal drug.

Care to know just how harsh and unjust this law is? If anyone is convicted – whether following a trial or if a defendant otherwise enters a pre-trial plea equating to a “conviction” – of a drug offense occurring within 1000 feet of a school, that person is automatically sentenced to anywhere from two to 15 years behind bars. If the term is 2 ½ years or less, the sentence can be served at a county House of Correction; If it is more than 2 ½ years, the sentence must be completed at a State Prison – and that is extremely severe. I don’t think anyone – least of all a clueless Legislature not known for its collective intelligence – realizes just how great a distance 1000 feet really is. Let me put it in sports terms: Would you think that a football field is a long distance? It’s 300 feet. 1000 feet is over three football fields in length. The idea behind this law was, supposedly, to prevent drug dealers from targeting children in (largely urban) schoolyards and school grounds. Instead, it has done two things: 1) Created a foolishly large, expansive distance to measure an alleged drug crime from in relation to any school, and 2) Included in that law, any drug transaction deemed illegal, no matter how minor.

That means the following: If you or someone you cared about were charged with and convicted of selling a nickel or dime bag worth of marijuana to a friend – over three football fields away from a school and with no intent whatsoever to sell to any children – that person would automatically be sentenced to a minimum of two years in jail, and quite possibly more. The judge would have no say in the matter. If a conviction – even a plea otherwise amounting to a conviction – were entered, the judge would have no choice but to sentence the defendant to the mandatory minimum jail time. As a Dedham, Massachusetts drug offense lawyer, I’ve seen it happen on far too many occasions.

That’s the kind of foolish, unintended consequence that can result from shortsighted mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This law is unjust, unwise, and has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of jail cells being filled with nonviolent offenders – instead of violent criminals. That’s why Massachusetts’ jails and state prisons are bursting at the seams. We need those jail cells for violent and dangerous offenders, so that the public can be protected from them.

As a Dedham, Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, it’s amazing to me that more informed observers can’t make the connection between why parole officials might wish to create space in our prisons, and why those prisons are so over-crowded in the first place.

Gov. Patrick’s proposal calls for shrinking that “drug-free zone” from 1000 feet of a school, to 100 feet. The Massachusetts Bar Association has endorsed this idea, as have several leading criminal defense lawyers. The one party opposed is Attorney General Martha Coakley. Her reasons, couched in boilerplate crime-fighting language, are unsupported by the facts. This proposal should pass, intact, and soon.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are horrible ideas. Judges should be allowed to retain the sentencing powers that are inherent in their important positions. They should not be handcuffed, forced in many instances to watch justice manhandled out the door.