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April 11, 2005 - North Adams Transcript (MA)

Editorial: Sentencing Law Spawns Inequities

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An interesting discussion is under way in southern Berkshire County concerning the mandatory minimum sentences required for drug sales within 1,000 feet of a school under the state's "drug-free school zone" legislation. The catalyst was a series of drug busts in the fall in the Great Barrington area that followed a lengthy police investigation.

In all, 19 young people were arrested on a variety of drug charges in September, the Berkshire Eagle reported, and a number of the charges involve a drug-free school zone allegation and, therefore, a two-year jail term if there is a conviction. But now a group has formed called the Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice, and a petition that collected 400 signatures was submitted to Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless.

The group is asking Mr. Capeless to reconsider seeking charges carrying the mandatory minimum jail term for seven of the 19 arrested -- charged with small-scale marijuana distribution, the Eagle reported. And several members of the group met privately with the DA to discuss the matter.

While a judge has no choice under the 1989 statute concerning the sentence for a conviction, the DA can decide whether to press the charge. Regardless of how these cases turn out, it is unfortunate that this debate is not taking place at the Massachusetts Statehouse, because that is where this problematic law originated.

The law has the sort of mindless let's-show-the-public-how-tough-we-are-on-drugs edge that lawmakers on the state and federal level so often have produced.

As with virtually every mandatory sentencing bill passed anywhere, this one has more often than not proved a disaster. For every hardcore dealer put away, there are many more young people who made a stupid mistake -- not realizing they were within 1,000 feet of a school -- and then must pay far out of proportion to the crime.

It is no wonder many judges have decried the way this law ties their hands when they have been forced to sentence someone they thought deserved a second chance. How often have we seen this right here in Berkshire County?

All it takes is for a high school student to sell a small amount of marijuana to a friend after school, or for a group of young people to be stopped with drugs while driving past a school, and they might be subject to this unforgiving statute.

Obviously, this law is meant to discourage drug dealers from preying on students, but does it do that in most cases? We doubt it. And aren't there other, even harsher sentencing options already available for the major dealer?

This harebrained 1,000-foot rule allows judges no flexibility and no chance to show mercy to a young person, who might benefit from another chance more than from a tour in the slammer with hardened criminals. It is past time to ditch this rule.

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