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A clash over drug curbs at schools

Patrick would reduce zones of protection

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick wants to shrink drug-free school zones from 1,000 feet to 100 feet, fueling debate about whether the law effectively protects children from drug dealers or simply sends too many low-level offenders to overcrowded prisons to serve excessive sentences at taxpayers’ expense.

Top law enforcement officials have said that the reduction would enable drug dealers to conduct criminal activity close to parks and schools and could take away the ability of police and prosecutors to use the law to scare smaller drug dealers into giving up leaders of large trafficking rings.

“I do not believe that we should reduce this tool that prosecutors and police have to combat drug dealers,’’ Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement. “The school zones allow us to more effectively hold defendants accountable and serve as a deterrent for those engaged in drug dealing.’’

But Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said he is encouraged by the proposal because it indicates that the governor is focusing on imprisoning violent offenders.

Patrick’s proposal was included in a plan to close a $1.2 billion budget gap in part through reductions in prison costs. He wants to close two state prisons and has introduced sentencing changes that would allow nonviolent drug offenders to be released on parole, a move that officials said would ease overcrowding. The mandatory two-year prison time for drug dealing in a school zone would remain in effect, state officials said.

“This is a step in the right direction to making beds available to people involved in violent crime, and I think that’s where our focus should be right now,’’ Davis said.

Gregory Massing, general counsel for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said more states are moving in the direction of changing mandatory sentencing laws. Massachusetts officials created the school zone in 1989 to help combat a crack cocaine epidemic. The law also increases penalties for those caught within 100 feet of a park or playground.

“It really is an overbroad law that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,’’ Massing said. “Ultimately it fails to protect children and meanwhile incarcerates a lot of people for a lot of time at the government’s expense.’’

Last year, New Jersey eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for anyone convicted of selling drugs in a school zone. The same year, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommended reducing the school zone from 1,000 feet to 250 feet.

Rhode Island repealed all mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses in 2009.

Barbara J. Dougan, who is Massachusetts project director for the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that at least 17 states, including Massachusetts, have begun reexamining mandatory drug sentencing laws or have repealed some of them. Studies have shown that such laws tend to unfairly target urban communities and, as a result, minorities who are more likely to live in the city, Dougan said.

“What the governor is proposing in this bill is right in line with the national trend,’’ Dougan said. “A lot of this has been a response to states not being able to balance their budgets and having crushing correctional costs that are not needed. When you cast a wide net . . . you get some people who deserve to be in jail for lengthy sentences, but you get far more who do not pose a risk to public safety.’’

State officials relied on studies such as the 2001 analysis of the law’s effects by the Boston University School of Public Health.

That analysis, which was led by state Representative William N. Brownsberger, found that the boundaries between schools and parks were overlapping and chaotic. Dealers could be taking part in drug deals without realizing they were in a school zone.

The study, which looked at 443 drug cases in New Bedford, Fall River, and Springfield, also found that less than 1 percent involved charges of dealing to minors or using them in sales.

Critics also say that the law does not distinguish between someone selling just outside a school and someone selling drugs from their own home in the middle of the night. But some police officials, especially those in small, suburban communities where school zones are more clearly defined, said they believe the law has been useful.

“The reason why it’s nice to have it at 1,000 feet specifically is it gives you that extra leverage in’’ investigations, said Sharon Deputy Police Chief J.J. McGrath. “A lot of times what happens in the real world is that you have a small fry . . . You can say: ‘Listen up, pal, you were within a school zone. We want the big fish. or you’re going down with the more severe penalty.’ ’’

Northborough Police Chief Mark Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said the law not only keeps drug dealers from dealing directly to children, it ensures children will not see them at work in places near their schools.

“The fact that this could occur within 100 feet, within eye-shot and earshot of a school bothers me a lot,’’ Leahy said. “The only possible benefit is that if the kids are playing kickball on the field and kick the ball over the fence, perhaps the drug dealers can return it to them.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.