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How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

Calvin Bryant was a first-time, nonviolent drug offender. Because of his address, he got sent to prison for longer than if he'd committed second-degree murder.

Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/NewscomJim Weber/ZUMA Press/NewscomIn 2008, Calvin Bryant was a 20-year-old student at Tennessee State University. He had been a talented fullback in high school and dreamed of going pro.

Now he's serving 17 years in Tennessee state prison—15 of them mandatory—for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. His sentence is substantially longer that it normally would have been under the state's drug laws, just because of where he lived.

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.

Bryant's case is now the subject of a legal challenge filed by the Tennessee attorney Daniel Horwitz. Horwitz will go before a state judge tomorrow to argue that the arbitrary and excessive nature of Bryant's sentence violates his rights under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

It's also a case study in how police and prosecutors use drug-free school zones, which exist in all 50 states and are supposed to protect schoolchildren from drug pushers, to threaten drug offenders with huge sentences whether or not they were dealing to a minor and whether or not school was even in session at the time.

"There is no circumstance in which it makes sense to punish a first-time, nonviolent drug offender more harshly than a rapist or a murderer," Horwitz tells Reason. "Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society, and as everyone who is familiar with his case has recognized, he deserves to be released."

That's not just the opinion of a bleeding-heart criminal defense lawyer. The prosecutor who put Bryant in prison, Robert McGuire, submitted an affidavit to the court along with Horwitz's petition.

"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 writes. "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 offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety."

The 12 members of Nashville's city council have also signed a letter in support of Bryant's petition for sentencing relief.

Civil liberties and criminal justice advocates have long argued 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. And getting caught with drugs in a zone mean the difference between being eligible for probation and serving years of hard time.

If Bryant "had lived in a wealthy, residentially-zoned suburb like Belle Meade, then he likely would have been eligible for release after serving just two years and five months in prison for the exact same conduct," Bryant's petition states. "Because Mr. Bryant lived in the Edgehill Housing Projects, however, Mr. Bryant must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 15 years before he even becomes eligible for parole."

Here's what the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville that Bryant lived in looks like. The tan areas are those covered by drug-free zones:

Tennessee Bureau of InvestigationTennessee Bureau of InvestigationThat's why Nashville's current district attorney, Glenn Funk, doesn't pursue drug-free school zone sentences against defendants who haven't violated the core purpose of the law: putting children in danger.

Meanwhile, members of the Tennessee state legislature plan to advance a bill in the upcoming session to shrink the state's drug-free school zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet. A similar effort failed in the state House last year.

But that's cold comfort for current inmates and their families.

"Calvin has been incarcerated since May 16, 2008 and it has affected our family in a major way," Bryant's sister LaShana writes in a letter attached to his petition. "Our father passed away 11 months after he was incarcerated, and our mother had developed several health issues. Calvin is not perfect, but he is a great man that has definitely grown and matured over the years. I pray that he is allowed a second chance to be released so that our family will be able to put this behind us and move forward."

You can read about all this and more in an investigation into drug-free school zone laws by myself and my colleague Lauren Krisai in the latest print edition of Reason. We obtained public records showing wide racial disparities in drug-free school zone sentences in Tennessee. We also got our hands on geographic information system (GIS) data showing that wide swaths of urban areas in the state are covered by these overlapping zones. In fact, 27 percent of Nashville, where Bryant was arrested, is covered in drug-free school zones.

If you're not a subscriber (see what you're missing?), keep an eye out to see the article on the Reason website in the near future.

Photo Credit: Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's also a case study in how police and prosecutors use drug-free school zones, which exist in all 50 states and are supposed to protect schoolchildren from drug pushers, to threaten drug offenders with huge sentences...

    If they can pad their resumes, how can prosecutors rise to become senators?

  • fortuenti||

    And the NOT-SO-Honorable Jeff Sessions is a PRIME example of such evil creature!

  • BYODB||


    The prosecutor who put Bryant in prison, Robert McGuire, submitted an affidavit to the court along with Horwitz's petition.


    Jesus, I think Hell just froze over...

  • BYODB||

    Oh, and while we're on the subject mandatory minimum sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment almost by definition.

  • operagost||

    Get rid of institutional racism, and the fascists find another way to keep the poor and black down-- and voting Democrat.

  • tommhan||

    Well cry me a frigging river.

  • IceTrey||

    The state is going to spend half a million over $6,000 in pills.

  • fortuenti||

    OF COURSE it's a WASTE of money but it doesn't matter because grandstanding Republicans and Democrats thought it was more important to "send the 'right message' to young people" about "drugs" -- oblivious to the facts that:

    1) Young people are smart enough to know they're being lied to and;

    2) The REAL messages they're sending are;

    .. a) the will of the people no longer counts in the United Police States of AmeriKa and;
    .. b) Hard on "drugs" = **SOFT** on The United States Constitution -- and I'm talking soft-as-a-marshmallow-roasted-over-a-campfire kinda soft!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society">

    It's not like he every owed society anything anyway.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I hope everything below that's not broken now.

  • Eidde||

    Under Article III(6) of the Tennessee Constitution, the governor "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons, after conviction, except in cases of impeachment."

    I wonder if Governor Bill Haslam has anything more important to do than consider clemency for this guy, because I see no reference to the governor in the article.

  • Malvolio||

    Here's the thing: the profitability of drug dealing varies with the severity of the sentence. How much money is there in "dealing" bags of Fritos? Almost none, because there is no penalty. Sell six-packs of beer to other people in your dorm, you'll make more. Sell ecstasy, still more.

    This guy wanted to collect the entire risk-premium, but doesn't want to take the risk.

    Eh.

  • Agammamon||

    That's rather idiotic of you.

  • thisbrucesmith||

    The state hasn't gotten around to criminalizing possession of Fritos yet. Give 'em time.

  • Agammamon||

    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.

    I've said this before and I'll say it again - there is no such thing as a good cop. The best of them simply manage to do enough good to counter the evil they do on a daily basis.

    A LEO's first priority is to enforce the diktats of a politically powerful minority even if those diktats are morally offensive.

  • Agammamon||

    The prosecutor who put Bryant in prison, Robert McGuire, submitted an affidavit to the court along with Horwitz's petition.

    He could have, you know, refused to participate in this barbarity, so could the judge. That he chose later to try to mitigate the damage he's done doesn't negate his moral culpability.

  • Public Pretender||

    He's probably a defense attorney now.
    /checks the google...yep

  • IceTrey||

    The problem is the government initiating force. The solution is limiting government authority to the retaliatory use of force.

  • Galane||

    And what of the CI and the police who were involved in instigating the drug deal? Absent any prior proof of a person selling drugs, the police should not be allowed to essentially bully a person into illegal activity.

    Nor should they ever be allowed to pretend to engage in the 'supply side' of criminal activity by pretending to sell drugs or pretending to be prostitutes.

    If they can provide evidence that people already suspected of participating in the drug trade are looking to make a big buy, then a sting operation would be OK. They wouldn't be creating criminal activity.

  • ohdelilah||

    And who gets to decide what constitutes a "big buy"? Oh, yeah, the guys with the guns who get their rocks off turning nonviolent activities violent, the ones who profit from civil asset forfeiture, the ones who lie to get search warrants, and who brag about their abilities to tamper with evidence. No, sting operations are NOT okay. Whether a cop is buying $20 worth of meth from a high-school student or attempting to sell $300 worth of pot, they're still creating the crime. And it's not "okay."

  • Bax||

    As an atheist believer in "turn the other cheek" and a follower of the non-aggression principle, I still get wet dreams where an individual, involved in the ruination of some innocent person's life, has a 9mm entry wound in their forehead with just a little bit of blood dripping down. I don't want to know what the back of their head looks like. All I need to know is that they won't be able to inflict their sick justice fantasies on other innocent people.

    Sometimes, wet dreams make it possible to move on.

  • ohdelilah||

    It's really sad (and counterproductive) that you felt the need to open this article with a young man's athletic talent, as if, somehow, that's relevant as to whether he deserves justice. But guess what? Until Americans, and by extension, the American media, are ready to stand up for the rights of the most hopeless drug-addicted, unemployed, inner-city or rural high-school drop-out, welfare mother or baby daddy, we have no standing to demand those rights for our own middle-class, college-bound, athletic, musical, had-high-hopes-for-the-future youth. Drug laws are unjust laws. Some of them, at particular times, may seem especially egregious, but they're all unjust. And justice doesn't get to pick and choose and separate the deserving from the undeserving. Either it applies to all our it applies to none.

  • ohdelilah||

    "The trouble with defending human freedom is that one must spend one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all." ~ H.L. Mencken

  • ohdelilah||

    A society where justice hinges on whether an individual has hopes for the future is a sad, sad, society. You'd think a media outlet that presents itself as a voice for freedom would hold itself to higher standards.

  • fortuenti||

    The constitutional prohibition against "CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT" was long ago lifted for drug cases because grandstanding Republicans and Democrats thought it was more important to "send the 'right message' to young people" about "drugs" -- oblivious to the facts that:

    1) Young people are smart enough to know they're being lied to and;

    2) The REAL messages they're sending are;

    .. a) the will of the people no longer counts in the United Police States of AmeriKa and;
    .. b) Hard on "drugs" = **SOFT** on The United States Constitution -- and I'm talking soft-as-a-marshmallow-roasted-over-a-campfire kinda soft!

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