This commentary was originally featured in the Commercial Appeal on March 13, 2018.
Tennessee’s criminal justice system is not short on laws that have good intentions with overly harsh sanctions.
One example is the state’s drug-free school zone law. At first glance, one may think it is hard to argue with such a well-intentioned law. No one thinks we should make it easier for drug dealers to peddle drugs to our school kids.
But like many of Tennessee’s laws for nonviolent offenses, tough sounding laws and good intentions don’t actually translate to effective policy, especially when it comes to prioritizing public safety and maximizing the use of taxpayer dollars.
Under Tennessee’s current drug-free school zone law, every defendant who commits a drug-related offense within 1,000 feet of a school, child care agency, public library, recreational center, or park faces a mandatory sentencing enhancement.
In some cases, that sentence is twice as long as it would have been had the offense occurred outside of the protected zone. In some cases, drug offenders can get sentences tougher than for rape or other violent offenses.
Of course, an enhanced sentence is appropriate for those who peddle drugs to children or expose them to harm. However, Tennessee’s law applies whether or not children are present and at any time, day or night.
Because these zones are so expansive, it’s difficult to know whether or not you are in a zone. The law is also arbitrary: in some situations, a person may receive double the punishment for an offense, just because he happened to be standing 999 feet from a school instead of 1,001 feet.
According to a recent analysis by Reason magazine, Tennessee has 8,544 school zones that cover roughly 27 percent of the state within city limits. Some areas, like East Knoxville, are more covered than not. Fifty-eight percent of that neighborhood falls within a drug free zone.
Some individuals serving prison sentences in Tennessee for a drug-free-zone offense committed crimes within their own homes or in cars which happened to be near a school or park.
A policy that seeks to sanitize environments where children are present from the influence of drugs seems sensible on its face, but only so long as it is narrowly tailored to serve that particular purpose.
Otherwise, broadly applied, the policy becomes ineffective and costly. According to the analysis of the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee, incarcerating drug-free zone inmates is estimated at $3,057,400 per year.
These high costs could be justified if mandatory punishments were proven methods of reducing crime; however, decades of research have proven the opposite. Research has found that it is the certainty of being caught, not the severity of the punishment, that deters future crime.
Reducing the drug-free school zone from 1,000 feet to 500 feet and allowing for some flexibility in sentencing makes practical and fiscal sense. The current 1,000-feet zone is sending offenders away for far longer than public safety demands, arbitrarily and on the taxpayer’s dime.
A 500-feet zone is a first step toward mitigating the number of absurd, unjust, and costly sentences in Tennessee while bringing the law more in line with its original intention: to keep children safe.