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Rethinking the Scope of Drug Free School Zone

| August 1, 2017

In 1995, Tennessee enacted The Drug Free School Zone Act—contained in § 39-17-432—for the stated “purpose of providing vulnerable persons in this state an environment in which they can learn, play and enjoy themselves without the distractions and dangers that are incident to the occurrence of illegal drug activities.” The Act is intended to function as a deterrent for those who would otherwise target or expose minors to their illicit drug activity by enhancing the punishment for certain narcotics offense.

Specifically, the Act imposes a mandatory enhancement of “a classification higher than is provided in § 39-17-417(b)-(i)” for any drug offense that occurs “within 1000 feet of a school, preschool, child care agency, library, rec center, or park.”

Without question, creating drug free environments for children is necessary and must always be a priority.  However, the considerable size of Tennessee’s 1000 foot zones function as an expansive web that inevitably captures individuals whose acts, though still criminal in nature and should be punished, fall outside the scope of the Act’s intended purpose.

In other words, these zones are so large that they often encapsulate residential dwellings, commercial and retail facilities, parking garages, etc.  Thus, a person who is convicted of selling a half an ounce of marijuana in their home to another adult, which is typically a Class A misdemeanor, will be subject to the enhanced Class E felony, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison, if their residence is anywhere inside a drug free school zone. This is regardless of whether the individual had any knowledge of this fact.

While folks may not necessarily feel too much sympathy for drug offenders who accidentally violate the drug free school zone, it is important to understand that the impact of these collateral consequences are also absorbed by the tax payer, while providing no added public safety increase. According the analysis of the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee, half of those serving an enhanced sentence for violating the drug free school zone were acting outside the scope of 500 feet. According to the Committee’s calculations which are based on the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ reported cost of $68.75 per day to house each these offenders, the cost of maintaining the zone beyond 500 feet is estimated at $ 3,057,400 per year.

Reducing the drug free school zone from 1000 feet to 500 feet makes practical and fiscal sense.  An individual knows, or should know, their proximity to a school, preschool, child care agency, library, rec center, or park if they are within 500 feet of the same, making it likely that their illicit drug activity falls within the intended and rightful purpose of the Drug Free School Zone Act.  Moreover, reducing the radius will save taxpayers from having to absorb the extra costs associated with incarcerating folks whose actions fall outside the scope of the Act, but inside the zone.  Attempts to reduce the drug free school zone to 500 feet failed during the 2017 Legislative Session.  Hopefully, the Legislature will be willing to give this reform a second look and careful consideration in the future.

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JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.

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