Drug-Free School Zones

Tennessee Reformed Its Harsh Drug-Free School Zone Laws. What About the Hundreds Still in Prison?

Inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences have been left behind.


Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill Wednesday reforming the state's harsh drug-free school zone laws. But criminal justice advocates say the law still leaves hundreds sitting in prison serving unjust sentences.

Previously, Tennessee's drug-free school zones stretched 1,000 feet from any school, park, library, or day care center. The new law shrinks them to 500 feet, and it gives judges more discretion in whether to apply the stiff sentences that accompany drug offenses in school zones.

As a 2017 Reason investigation showed, Tennessee's drug-free school zones covered wide swaths of urban areas—27 percent of Nashville, for instance—and applied day or night, indoors or outdoors, whether or not school is in session. The laws were rarely, if ever, used in actual cases of peddling drugs to minors. Instead they gave petty drug criminals prison sentences rivaling those for murder and rape.

While lawmakers acknowledged the problems these supersized zones created, they did not grant any retroactive relief to inmates currently doing time for school zone offenses. There are 489 people serving prison sentences in Tennessee for drug-free school zone violations, according to data from the state Department of Corrections. (That number doesn't include cases where prosecutors dropped school-zone charges as part of a plea deal.)

The criminal justice advocacy group FAMM and other local advocates say Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should use his clemency powers to commute the sentences of inmates serving excessive drug-free school zone sentences.

"A lot of them don't need to be doing that much time and maybe don't need to be there at all anymore," Molly Gill, vice president of policy for FAMM, told Reason last month.

One prisoner they're highlighting is Wayne Potee, currently serving a 15-year mandatory minimum prison sentence—the same as if he'd been convicted of second-degree murder or rape—for selling a small amount of meth to an undercover cop in a drug-free school zone. Potee had become addicted to opioids after a shoulder surgery, and was cycling through relapse and recovery. He started selling meth so he could afford Suboxone, an opioid addiction medication.

"Mr. Potee accepted full responsibility for his addiction-related crimes; he has been a model inmate since his convictions; and he has overcome the  addiction that played a central role in his incarceration," Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz wrote in a clemency application on behalf of Potee. "Put simply: Wayne Potee has been rehabilitated to an extraordinary degree relative to the low level nature of the offenses committed, and he will be a law-abiding citizen and positive contributor to society upon release." 

Horwitz also represented Calvin Bryant, a Nashville resident who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for selling pills to a police informant out of his apartment, which happened to be 1,000 feet from a school. After serving 10 and a half years in prison, Bryant was released in 2018 after prosecutors struck a deal to release him on time served. Bryant now mentors inner-city youth.

Testifying at a committee hearing on the bill earlier this year, Bryant told state lawmakers that he hopes future bills will give relief to those still incarcerated. "It's kind of rough when you're sitting in prison and your injustice is being used for other people's justice that haven't really committed crimes yet," he said.

Potee is four years into his prison sentence. His clemency application has been pending since January, Horwitz says.

The Tennessee governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. A spokesperson for the governor told the local news outlet WKMS that the governor will review sentences on a case-by-case basis.