Tennessee resident Calvin Bryant is serving a 17-year prison sentence for a first-time drug offense under the state's draconian drug laws. There's a good chance he would have served less time if he had committed second-degree murder or rape.
It's been 10 years since Bryant was arrested at age 22 for selling drugs to a police informant. Last week, Bryant, backed by supporters—family, friends, criminal justice groups, members of the Nashville City Council, and even one of the prosecutors who put him behind bars—filed a clemency petition to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, his last hope for early release.
The petition say he is perhaps the only first-time offender in Nashville history, and possibly the state, to receive such a lengthy mandatory sentence under Tennessee's harsh Drug-Free School Zone Act.
"Mr. Bryant's vastly disproportionate and possibly unparalleled sentence resulted from a toxic combination of harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, race, poverty and fatally arbitrary enforcement," Daniel Horwitz, Bryant's attorney, wrote in the clemency petition to Haslam.
Bryant was once a college student, well-liked in his community, and a former high school football standout who dreamed of going pro in the NFL. Reason reported on Bryant's case last year:
Police arrested Bryant in 2008 for selling 320 pills, mostly ecstasy, out of his Nashville apartment to a confidential informant who'd been bugging him. Tennessee treats this as a serious offense under any circumstances: Normally he would have faced at least two and a half years in prison. But because Bryant lived in a housing project within 1,000 feet of an elementary school—roughly three city blocks—his sentence was automatically enhanced under Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws to the same category as rape or second-degree murder.
Indeed, as someone with no prior adult criminal record, Bryant would have been eligible for release earlier if he'd committed one of those violent felonies.
The police informant who pressured Bryant into selling him the pills, a former family friend, had 39 previous convictions on his record. The informant received $1,000 for his work, according to a profile of Bryant by FAMM, an advocacy group that opposes mandatory minimum sentences
Bryant's first trial resulted in a hung jury, but at his retrial, he was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison, 15 of which were mandatory.
Since Bryant's incarceration, his father has died, and his mother, who suffers from a number of medical ailments, says she has been left without a full-time caregiver.
Bryant is just one of hundreds of Tennessee inmates serving inflated sentences because of the state's harsh drug-free school zone laws. As a 2017 Reason investigation showed, those school zones cover wide swaths of urban areas—27 percent of Nashville, for instance—and apply day or night, indoors or outdoors, even when school is not in session. And drug-free school zone offenses, according to interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys, almost never involve actual sales of drugs to minors. When prosecutors charge a defendant with a drug-free school zone offense, it automatically enhances the felony level, turning low-level felonies into long, mandatory prison sentences that rival those of the worst crimes.
Civil liberties and criminal justice advocates argue that the large radius of these zones create overlapping "superzones" that blanket urban areas, especially poor and minority neighborhoods. Because Tennessee's drug-free zones include day cares, libraries, and parks, it's almost impossible to escape them in some neighborhoods. Several states have reformed their school zone laws in recent years to reduce their size and scope, but although the Tennessee legislature has considered several such bills, none of them have been passed.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, whose jurisdiction includes Nashville, took office in 2014 and adopted a policy of not charging school zone offenses where no children were involved, but that was well after Bryant was arrested, charged, and sentenced.
Even one of the prosecutors who sent Bryant to prison, Rob McGuire, now says Bryant should be released.
"I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant's amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety," McGuire wrote in a letter accompanying Bryant's petition. "I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023—and after over nine years of incarceration—will deprecate the seriousness of the offense for which he was convicted or significantly imperil the public safety."
Late last year, a judge rejected a petition for relief that argued Bryant's sentence was cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. However, the judge acknowledged the punitiveness of the sentence and suggested Bryant file the petition for clemency.
"While the Court is of the opinion that it does not have legal authority to grant the Petitioner relief, the Court 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," the judge wrote.
Haslam is now essentially Bryant's last hope for an early release.
"We are optimistic that Governor Haslam will right this grievous wrong," Horwitz says in a statement to Reason. "As the broad coalition of support for Calvin's clemency campaign reflects, there is simply no circumstance in which it makes sense to punish a first-time, non-violent offender more harshly than a rapist or a murderer."
Haslam's office did not respond to a request for comment.