Three-Strikes Law and School Zone Drug Offenses

Massachusetts’ new “Three-Strike” law imposes a very strict, life sentence on the State’s most violent offenders. While this provision has generated an extensive public conversation with strong, vocal and logical arguments made both in favor and in opposition, the provisions of the bill providing leniency for non-violent drug offenders has largely been ignored by the public.

While violent, habitual offenders must beware of this new bill, street-level drug dealers have caught a huge break. This bill took a bite out of the school zone provision in Massachusetts General Law chapter 94C section 32J which required, in relevant part, a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for any individual arrested for distributing drugs or being in possession with the intent to distribute drugs within 1000 feet of a school.

The “Three-Strikes bill will drastically reduce the number of drug offenders facing a two year minimum mandatory sentence. The bill reduced the school zone from 1000 feet to 300 feet and eliminated the school zone altogether between the hours of midnight to 5:00 a.m. Practically speaking, the only defendants that will now be subject to the two year minimum mandatory school zone sentence are those arrested for distributing drugs or being in possession with the intent to distribute within 300 feet of a school and between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. Dealers will simply move their operations beyond the 300 foot threshold or simply sell their wares between midnight and 5:00 a.m. Unfortunately, this may increase the already alarming rate at which drug deals occur in full view of the public on a daily basis.

The school zone charge has long been the bane of many a criminal defendant and their attorney. Even if the facts suggest a high probability of an acquittal at trial, the risk of a two-year minimum mandatory sentence was just too high for many defendants and their attorneys to take. This often resulted in an agreement between the Prosecutor and Defendant for a guilty plea on the underlying drug offense in exchange for a dismissal of the school zone charge – no small deal considering that a charge of distribution and possession with intent to distribute are both felonies. With the two-year minimum sentence removed from the picture, many defendants may now want to proceed to trial to fight the charges before a Judge or jury.

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