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A Conservative Case for Drug-Free School Zone Reform

In 1995, Tennessee enacted The Drug Free School Zone Act—contained within § 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. 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 1,000 feet of a school, preschool, child care agency, library, rec center, or park.” Moreover, any conviction under this code section will be ineligible for parole.  The prosecutor maintains discretion whether to charge this code section pursuant to the facts presented (while the judge currently has no discretion whatsoever).

Without question, creating drug-free environments for children is necessary and must always be a priority. Public safety demands it. However, the considerable size of Tennessee’s 1,000-foot zones function as an expansive web, capturing individuals whose acts—though still criminal in nature—fall outside the scope of the legislature’s intended purpose. In other words, these zones are so large that they often encapsulate residential dwellings, commercial and retail facilities, parking garages, etc. As a consequence, most of Nashville is a drug-free school zone.

Currently, reforms sponsored by the respective Judiciary chairs, Senator Mike Bell and Representative Michael Curcio, are before the legislature (HB 2517/SB 2734) next week that will narrowly tailor the zone to 500 feet and to insert judicial discretion into the equation. These reforms ensure the application of the enhancement is aligned with the legislature’s intended purpose (and also have the approval of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, and the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police).

In its current form, the breadth of the drug-free school zone application can result in draconian sentences that cost the taxpayer a lot of money while returning no additional public-safety benefit. For example, a person convicted of selling a half-ounce of marijuana in their residence to another adult—in July at midnight, with no children present—can be prosecuted under the drug-free school zone law if their residence is situated 990 feet from a park. Thus, this person will be convicted of a Class D felony—rather than a Class E—and must serve a mandatory two years in prison. Here, the prosecutor retains the discretion to consider the underlying facts and determine them not to be in line with the legislative intent behind the drug-free school zone enhancement, and then choose not to charge the individual with the violation of the same. The judge has no such discretion.

Reducing the drug-free school zone from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and inserting judicial discretion into the process, also makes fiscal sense (of particular importance during COVID-19-related budget shortfalls). The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee estimates cost savings at $18,449,100 for reduced incarceration alone. The committee found that 25 percent of drug-free school zone convictions occurred beyond 500 feet, thus removing those offenders from the enhancement will save incarceration costs.

Now, reconsider the aforementioned scenario. The cost imposed upon the taxpayer to house the individual who sold a half-ounce of marijuana to another adult in his home is conservatively estimated at $55,130. This cost adds up. According to Fiscal Review, 271 people were subject to a Class D school-zone enhancement. Assuming each of these individuals were released upon serving the minimum two-year sentence—although the average is 2.26 years—the cost to taxpayers would amount to $14,940,122, solely for the Class D enhancements. Allowing a judge to weigh in on cases where the underlying facts do not support the legislative intent will further mitigate against such unnecessary costs, as highlighted by Fiscal Review.

The House Judiciary Committee already passed HB 2517 with overwhelming support, and will be taken up by the House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on June 2. On the same day, the Senate Judiciary will take up the companion bill, SB 2734. I trust that the legislature will carefully consider these reforms as policies supportive of good government, public safety, and which ensure optimal stewardship of precious Tennessee tax dollars.

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