Massachusetts drug-free zone law ineffective, not evenly enforced

In Massachusetts, where 80 percent of those sentenced with the drug-free enhancement are ethnic and racial minorities, two different research efforts have determined that the laws are not working as intended. Researchers affiliated with the Boston University School of Public Health found that decisions by police and prosecutors to invoke the statute had little or nothing to do with keeping drugs away from schoolchildren. A research team at Northeastern University School of Law found disturbing patterns of racial disparity in arrests and charging practices.

The Massachusetts "school-zone" statute, enacted in 1989, establishes 1,000-foot penalty enhancement zones around schools and 100-foot zones around parks and playgrounds. Defendants convicted of distributing or possessing drugs with intent to distribute in a drug-free zone face a two-year mandatory minimum term that must be served on top of any penalty imposed for the underlying offense. The enhancement does not apply to simple drug possession charges.

A pioneering effort to determine whether school-zone laws actually protect schools was undertaken in Massachusetts by William N. Brownsberger, a drug policy expert and former Assistant Attorney General for Narcotics, for the state. In 2001, Brownsberger, who conducted the research for the Boston University School of Public Health, published findings from analysis of a sample of 443 drug sales cases in three Massachusetts cities -- Fall River, New Bedford, and Springfield.

Brownsberger discovered that most drug sales were taking place within school zones, but that neither the transactions nor the way the law was enforced appeared to have anything to do with schoolchildren. Seven in 10 drug-free zone incidents occurred when school was not in session, less than one percent involved sales to youth. Brownsberger's conclusions are consistent with the findings of research from Connecticut, New Jersey and Utah.

Brownsberger argues that a special penalty to protect children is a good idea, but that the Massachusetts law is drawn too broadly to have that effect. By blanketing large geographic areas with drug-free zones, the law makes it virtually impossible for sellers to avoid them. As Brownsberger puts it, "We're not giving anyone any incentive not to sell drugs near schools."

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by Massachusetts' drug-free school zone law. National studies have found that whites, blacks and Hispanics use illegal drugs at similar rates, and also that most users obtain drugs from people with their own racial or ethnic background. Yet blacks and Hispanics, who make up just 20 percent of the Massachusetts resident population, account for 80 percent of those convicted of drug-free zone violations in the state.

The disparity is partly a consequence of geography. Densely populated urban neighborhoods, where people of color are more likely to live, are blanketed by prohibited zones, while rural and suburban neighborhoods are less affected. For example, Brownsberger found that 29 percent of territory in the three cities he examined fell within a prohibited zone, including 56 percent of the high-poverty areas.

But unequal enforcement also plays a role. In Dorchester, a Northwestern University research team found that nonwhites were more likely to be charged with an offense that can carry a drug-free zone enhancement than whites who engaged in similar conduct. When researchers interviewed police officers about their charging practices, they were told time and again, "it has to do with whether it's a good kid or a bad kid."

Massachusetts' school-zone law has a significant impact on sentencing and the state's use of correctional resources. A comparison of sentencing patterns for defendants convicted of school-zone and non-school-zone drug offenses suggests that a third of those currently being sentenced to prison or jail under the drug-free zone law might have received a non-incarcerative sanction if the law were not in effect. Further, the typical jail sentence imposed in a drug-free zone case is over twice as long as the sentence for individuals convicted of the same underlying offense with no enhancement, which means that, absent the zone statute, the defendants would likely serve less time behind bars.

Average House of Corrections sentence imposed in drug cases

Portions of this story were previously published in Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity -- and fail to protect youth.

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