Although illegal drug activity continues to plague communities, Massachusetts is reducing sentences for drug-related offenses. This may seem counterintuitive, since conventional wisdom suggests that tougher punishments do a better job of deterring crime. How then, and why, is Massachusetts lowering punishments for drug offenders? Massachusetts legislators are working to balance the competing interests of public safety and equitable enforcement among citizens of all races.
The 2012 “Crime Bill” reduces mandatory sentences for defendants who had already been convicted of drug sentences. See St. 2012, c. 192. The Crime Bill also increases the drug quantity that triggers mandatory minimum sentences, and permits parole for certain offenders.
A recent SJC decision, Commonwealth v. Bradley, focuses on another aspect of the Crime Bill: the reduction of the “drug-free school zone” provision. Commonwealth v. Bradley, SJC-11457, slip op. (Nov. 21, 2013). This “school zone” provision triggers a mandatory minimum sentence when a drug-related offense is committed within a specified school zone. In Bradley, the Court applies the new, lesser “school zone,” and identifies a few reasons why Massachusetts is reducing sentences for various drug offenses.
Previously, the “drug-free school zone” was delineated by a radius extending 1,000 feet from the property of a school or public park, and existed during all hours of the day and night. See G.L. c. 94C, § 32J. This law was amended by the 2012 Crime Bill to limit the “school zone” to a radius of 300 feet, between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and midnight. St. 2012, c. 192, § 30. A “drug-free school zone” violation under both versions of G.L. c. 94C, § 32J imposes a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment that begins at the expiration of the sentence for the underlying drug crime. It does not require the defendant to be aware that he was within a school zone. See Commonwealth v. Roucoulet, 413 Mass. 647, 650-651 (1992).
The original purpose of §32J was to protect schoolchildren from drug dealers by creating a drug-free school environment. See Roucoulet, at 652. However, since its enactment, various studies have shown that the 1,000 foot radius is overbroad.
Its overbreadth had an unfair impact on those who live in urban communities, where schools are more densely located. One study found that residents of urban areas are five times as likely to live in a sentencing enhancement zone as rural residents. See Bradley. Senator Stephen Brewer claimed that the entire city of Boston is a school zone. Id. Because African-American and Latino residents are more likely to live in urban areas, they are disproportionately affected by the “school zone” statute.
The court in Bradley noted, “In 2011, seventy-three per cent of those convicted of school zone offenses in Massachusetts were racial or ethnic minorities even though they comprise less than one quarter of the Massachusetts population and do not have a higher rate of illicit drug use.” (Citing Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, Survey of Sentencing Practices: FY 2011, at 85 (May 2012).)
With these statistics in mind, legislators tried to craft more equitable sentences for drug offenses. Because of the legislative history indicating the need for revised sentences, the defendant in Bradley was able to persuade the Court to apply the new, lower radius for a school zone.
The economic and social impact of these new sentencing statutes for drug offenses will be seen in the coming years.
If you have questions about how these or other legal developments affect you, call the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C.