UPDATE: This legislation failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 22, 2017.
Currently, Tennessee’s drug-free zone laws, created during the Reagan era as part of the misguided “War on Drugs,” mandate lengthy sentences for any drug crime committed within 1,000 feet radius — about three football fields — of a school, child care center, public library, recreational center, or park. While protecting children from drugs is a laudable goal, in practice the actual result of this law has been that people in Tennessee’s more densely populated areas — cities like Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga or Knoxville — are subject to a stricter standard of justice than those in the suburbs or rural counties.
SB 807/HB 725, which begins moving through the state legislature on Tuesday, March 14, would reduce the size of our state’s drug-free zone laws, while still maintaining a 500-foot drug-free radius around schools and other locations. This measure is being sponsored by Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. Brenda Gilmore.
The current zoning disproportionately impacts communities of color and other people who live in cities where schools, libraries and parks are close to other parts of the community, including businesses and housing. Because African American and Latino people are far more likely than white people to live within drug-free zones, they are automatically and unconstitutionally targeted for harsher penalties for the same offenses in comparison to other Tennesseans.
These types of laws often result in enhanced penalties for offenses that do not fit the law’s intent. Because the 1,000-foot radius is so large — about three football fields — and is not always marked, many people have no way of knowing if and when they are in a drug-free zone, or that the rule still applies even when no schoolchildren are present, including in the middle of the night. Consequently people who had no intention of distributing drugs to children still receive extreme punishments as if they had.
Drug-free zone laws do not make children safer. While such laws were first proposed to protect children from drug trafficking, research shows that the zoning isn’t used to sanction people who sell drugs to children.1 Additionally, when large and overlapping drug-free zones constitute an entire city as a drug-free zone, without differentiation, there can be no deterrent effect.
The proposed legislation would empower our judges with the authority to sentence people based on the severity of the crime, not the location. Drug-free zones tie judges’ hands and force them to hand down mandatory-minimum sentences, even if the situation and circumstances do not call for so harsh a punishment. This proposed legislation is smart on crime, not soft on crime, and gives power back to judges to make their own decisions on how to sentence people in their courtrooms.
1. http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/06-03_REP_DisparitybyDesign_DP-JJ-RD.pdf – published March, 2006