Tennessee lawmakers are finally revisiting the state’s punitive drug-free school zone laws, which blanket whole swaths of towns, turning minor drug crimes into mandatory minimum offenses with sentences that rival those for rape and murder.
The Tennessee House is advancing a bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Michael Curcio, that would reduce the zones from 1,000 feet from any school, park, library, or day care center to 500 feet. Importantly, it would also remove the mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges more discretion.
“The unintended consequence of such a large zone is that the law affects more individuals than the General Assembly meant to target,” Curcio said at a March hearing.
In defense of the changes, Curcio cited data from a Reason investigation published two years ago showing that more than a quarter of land area within city limits in the state is covered by drug-free zones. Such zones cover 38 percent of Memphis, for example, and 58 percent of East Knoxville.
All 50 states created drug-free zones in the ’80s and ’90s, but civil liberties groups—and even some current and former prosecutors—say the laws are rarely, if ever, used in actual cases involving drug dealing to minors. Tennessee’s laws apply even when school is out and even when the defendant is in a private residence or merely driving through a zone.
Take the case of Calvin Bryant, who was sentenced at age 20 to 17 years in prison—15 of them mandatory—for selling ecstasy to a confidential informant in his Nashville apartment, which happened to be within 1,000 feet of a school. He could theoretically have served less time if he’d been convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a minimum 15-year sentence but includes a possibility for parole after 13 years.
After serving 10 and a half years, Bryant was released in 2018 through a deal struck with prosecutors. He now mentors inner-city youth. “I hold myself accountable for participating in a drug transaction, but do I feel like I should have gotten 17 years?” he testified at a committee hearing on the bill. “I don’t.”
There are 358 Tennessee inmates serving sentences for drug-free school zone offenses, according to data obtained by the Justice Action Network, an advocacy group. That number doesn’t include cases where prosecutors dropped school zone charges as part of a plea deal.
Bryant told lawmakers he hopes future bills will give relief to those still incarcerated. “It’s kind of rough when you’re sitting in prison and your injustice is being used for other people’s justice that haven’t really committed crimes yet.”