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Panel: End tough school-zone drug law | TribLIVE.com
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Panel: End tough school-zone drug law

The Associated Press
| Monday, July 12, 2010 12:00 a.m

YORK — A state panel is recommending that lawmakers repeal the mandatory minimum sentences imposed for drug offenses in school zones, letting judges determine the sentence based on existing guidelines.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing says mandatory sentences are used inconsistently across the state. Executive director Mark Bergstrom says some district attorneys invoke them every time, while others rarely use them.

In addition, he said, there is no required link between drug deals and the school zone, which extends 1,000 feet from the edge of school property, so it includes people living blocks away.

The law does not distinguish between a drug dealer selling to children near a school and someone selling drugs in a house during the middle of the night.

In York, for example, most of the city falls within a drug-free school zone, so an adult convicted of even a first-time offense could face time in state prison. And if a district attorney decides to invoke a mandatory minimum sentence of two to four years, a judge must hand down that sentence whether he or she agrees with it or not.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said his office decides whether to invoke mandatory sentences on a case-by-case basis, but it’s a tool that he wants to keep in his arsenal.

“I like the flexibility the legislation has provided to me,” he said. “What we want to get are the bad guys.”

He said, however, that he can understand concerns about the lack of consistency across the state.

Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-West Manchester, said that because the state prison population keeps going up as crime has been decreasing, lawmakers have to address mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent offenders. But he said lessening any offense in a school zone would put children in danger.

Stewart Weinberg, superintendent of the Dallastown Area School District, said drug-free school zones help to keep drugs off of school property, and he does not want to see penalties reduced. And, he asks, if someone is selling drugs at 2 a.m. out of a house, what will stop that person from doing so when school is in session?

Defense attorney Richard Robinson, however, said the minimums take too much power from judges. He said he represented a college student with no prior record who sold marijuana in his dorm room to some friends. The district attorney threatened to invoke the mandatory minimum, meaning a two-year sentence, he said. The student ultimately was placed on probation.

“They have a hammer over your head,” Robinson said.

Defense attorney Christopher Ferro calls the law “justice by tape measure,” because the school zones don’t really take into account whether minors were involved in a crime. Especially unfair, he said, is that the law disproportionately affects defendants in urban areas because of the number of school buildings.

“It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in York City, and you’re not in a drug-free school zone,” he said.

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