Some laws, no matter their initial purpose, have unintended, unjust consequences. Tennessee’s drug-free school zone law mandates a longer sentence for any drug law violation committed within a 1000-foot radius – about three football fields – of schools and other facilities. For example, the distribution of 0.5 grams of cocaine 1,001 feet away from a school could result in 2.5 years in prison – but one foot closer to the school would result in a mandatory 15-year prison sentence.
While these types of laws were enacted with the intent of protecting children, they are so broad that they result in unjustly long sentences for low-level drug offenses that take place a substantial distance from schools and do not involve children at all. Because the current 1,000-foot radius is so large – and is not always marked – people often have no way of knowing if and when they are in a drug-free zone. Consequently, people who had no intention of distributing drugs to children still receive the same extreme punishments as if they had.
HB 2517/SB 2734 would reduce the size of drug-free school zones from 1000 feet to 500 feet. The bill also allows judges to use their discretion in sentencing according to the specifics of the case, instead of applying harsh punishments to a broad array of cases regardless of the circumstances. Additionally, this legislation ensures that individuals selling or distributing drugs to children under 18 years still receive harsher penalties if convicted. These reforms would reduce the number of people unnecessarily incarcerated while bringing the law more in line with its purpose of actually protecting children.
Drug-free zones also disproportionately impact communities of color and 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.
In addition to its social and political cost, these large drug-free school zones also carry a massive economic burden. With an average cost of $68.75 to house a prisoner each day in a TDOC facility, Tennessee taxpayers are paying $29,975 per day, or $10.9 million per year, to house the 436 Tennesseans serving long sentences under drug free school zone laws.