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Drug-free school zones | Globe Editorial

The too-long arm of the law

February 1, 2011

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GOVERNOR PATRICK’S plan to close two state prisons at the same time he is clamping down on paroling inmates won’t work unless the state loosens its sentencing practices. To this end, Patrick has called for changing the law that sets a minimum two- to 15-year sentence for dealing drugs in a school zone. He would reduce that zone from 1,000 feet to 100 feet. It is a sensible modification that would ensure that non-violent drug offenders do not serve long sentences just because they were caught in the existing law’s unnecessarily large school zone.

The change has the backing of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Its chief legal counsel, Martin Healy, calls the 1,000-foot zone law “a blunt approach’’ with a “disparate impact on poor urban areas.’’ In such areas, drug offenders can face the heavy sentences even when they aren’t selling to school children, whom the law is meant to protect.

Attorney General Martha Coakley opposes the change, arguing that the 1,000-foot zone is still an important tool. But Patrick’s plan would leave prosecutors with plenty of tools, including mandatory minimum sentences, for dealing with drug dealers who actually sell to children. That can carry a minimum sentence of up to five years if the drug is heroin. Children will be protected, and space in prisons freed up to allow longer sentences for the most dangerous criminals.