Tennessee Prosecutors Sunk a Bill to Reform the State's Punitive Drug-Free School Zone Law

A Reason investigation found the zones covered wide swaths of cities and buried first-time offenders under huge sentences.


Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A bipartisan bill to reform Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws died in the state legislature last week after local district attorneys turned against it. The DAs had previously been neutral, but they moved into opposition after funding for new paralegal positions in their offices was removed from the legislation.

A Reason investigation in December found that Tennessee's Drug-Free School Zone Act—which creates 1,000-foot drug-free zones radiating from schools, parks, libraries, and day cares—had covered large swaths of cities with enhanced sentencing areas. Thirty-eight percent of Memphis, for example, consists of drug-free zones. Those laws were rarely, if ever, used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors or on school grounds.

Instead, first-time offenders receive huge sentences—in one case, 15 years for an $80 bag of mushrooms—even if school isn't in session or if they just happened to be driving through a zone. The threat of an enhanced sentence gave prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants. It also enticed police and confidential informants to set up drug deals inside the zones for the purpose of securing a drug-free zone charge.

There were also wide racial disparities in who received the enhanced sentences. Sixty-nine percent of inmates serving time for a drug-free school zone offenses were black, though blacks make up only 17 percent of the total Tennessee population.

Because of such concerns, a bill to shrink Tennessee's drug-free school zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet was sailing through state legislature this year with bipartisan support. Both progressive groups and conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, supported the legislation.

But last week, the Tennessee House finance committee voted 9–13 to reject the bill after the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference announced its opposition.

The Nashville Scene reports that the group's sudden switch came after the bill's Senate co-sponsor stripped provisions that would have used the projected savings from the smaller zones to fund 18 new paralegal positions in D.A. offices:

"There was no active opposition going through [earlier committees]," Rep. Tilman Goins told the finance committee. "The opposition began when the amendment went on that removed positions from the district attorneys. So it's hard for me to pinpoint what the true issue may be."

In testimony before the committee that day, Steve Crump, the elected DA for the 10th Judicial District and the legislative chair for the state DAs conference, said the conference felt the paralegal positions would help prosecutors find new ways to address the opioid epidemic. On balance, he said, the conference saw that as a worthwhile trade-off and opted to remain neutral on the bill rather than outright oppose it, even though he claimed the conference had always opposed shrinking drug-free school zones. But now, with the new positions stripped out of the bill, he cast the legislation as a gift to drug dealers.

"You don't get a $3.7 million savings that involves the Tennessee Department of Correction unless a lot of people are in jail a lot less time," he told the committee. "People who sold drugs within school zones, as you currently made illegal and an enhanced punishment. You don't get a savings from the Tennessee Department of Corrections unless you put, in this case, drug dealers on the street early."

You can see Crump's whole testimony here. At one point, he concedes that almost all drug sales to minors are minor-to-minor transactions, not adult-to-minor. It was fear of the latter—of the dreaded playground pusher—that led Congress and all 50 states to pass drug-free school zone laws in the first place.

"The district attorneys' last-minute opposition to what was a modest, long overdue reform is baffling," says Daniel Landsman, deputy director of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization that supported the bill. "We know this law is not being used against the people it was designed for."

As the Scene lays out, other legislators, both Republicans and Democrats weren't buying the abrupt change of heart from the prosecutors' association, either.

"The timing's really bad," Republican Rep. Ryan Williams told Crump. "It kind of points in a different direction, that you're mainly frustrated that you lost the 18 positions, that you were for it before you were against it, and that kind of bothers me, really. Especially when you sit up here and say that this committee, if they vote for this, is soft on crime."

But in the end, state legislators, especially Republicans, don't want to be on the bad side of their local D.A. So Tennessee will keep a system in place that puts first-time drug offenders in prison for years, sometimes decades.