The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative, pro-business organization that drafts model bills for state legislatures, passed a resolution Friday urging states to reform their drug-free school zone laws.
The conservative group is the latest in a growing bipartisan chorus opposing punitive drug-free school zone laws, which exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
"Most Drug-Free Zone laws were established decades ago," the resolution says, "but have not been reformed despite evidence that Drug-Free Zones are arbitrary and often unnecessarily broad, are ineffective at deterring drug- related crime, and create significant unintended consequences, including unwarranted disparate impacts on minority defendants."
That's exactly what a December Reason investigation into Tennessee's Drug-Free School Zone Act found.
Tennessee's drug-free school zones extend 1,000 feet from the real property of every school, library, park, and daycare in the state. Using GIS data obtained from the state, Reason found there were 8,544 separate drug-free zones in Tennessee, amounting to 5 percent of the overall area of the state and 26 percent of urban areas.
Those enhanced sentencing zones were rarely, if ever, used to prosecute drug crimes involving children, according to interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys. But they did result in first-time and low-level drug offenders receiving longer prison sentences than if they had been found guilty of second-degree murder or rape. Sentencing data also showed wide racial disparities in who received drug-free school zone sentences, with blacks making up 69 percent of all current inmates serving time for violations of the act, despite only making up 17 percent of the state population.
The zones, which tend to cluster in low-income and minority neighborhoods, also give prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants.
Several states have passed reforms to their laws over the past decade, shrinking the size and number of zones. The Tennessee legislature is considering a similar reform this year to shrink its zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet. A bipartisan group of civil liberties and criminal justice organizations are supporting the bill, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
"Conservative lawmakers recognize that drug-free school zone laws have proven to be a costly failure," FAMM president Kevin Ring said in a statement on the ALEC resolution. "These laws stick low-level offenders with long sentences even when no children are involved and, as a result, they waste resources that could be better spent on more serious offenders."
One of those offenders is Calvin Bryant, a 32-year-old Tennesse inmate serving a 17-year sentence for selling pills to a police informant. Bryant was charged in 2009 with an enhanced school-zone sentence because the housing project he lived in happened to be within 1,000 feet of a school. He was a first-time offender.
As Reason reported, Tennessee attorney Daniel Horwitz filed an Eighth Amendment petition on behalf of Bryant in November challenging his sentence as grossly disproportionate to his crime
This week, a Tennessee state judge rejected Bryant's petition, while also writing that it "also feels it necessary to note that in spite of this finding, the Court agrees with the basic argument of his petition—that his sentence can be viewed as harsh."
"While not ignoring the important policy rationale that led the Tennessee legislature to pass the Act," the judge continued, "the fact remains that in certain situations, such as with the Petitioner, a strict interpretation and enforcement of the Act can lead to sentences that courts and and some members of the community would be hard-pressed to describe as fair."